Author: dbbaldwin (Page 1 of 7)

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 4, Summer Transfer Window

Welcome back, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

Thank you to Iain Macintosh for the shoutout on The Football Manager Show. I’ve outpaced the challenge, but I hope the spirit of it remains even as the updates come more quickly for now.

At the very end of the Premier League season, the board set out expectations for how the club will be run. This year it included playing defensively solid football, playing high-tempo pressing football, playing possession football, and signing high reputation players.

Wait one damn minute. I can probably handle the tactical stuff, but you want me–the manager of recently-relegated Sunderland–to sign high reputation players? Do you not know my Football Manager philosophy? It was in the first post.

I will continue signing the players I think will make the club succeed, and Kyril can sack me if he doesn’t like it.

While I complained about Kyril to the backroom staff, he turned up with this little gem of news:

You can buy a lotta pints and packets of crisps with that kind of money. I reckon someone with 76m in transfer funds could build a Premier League calibre team. Maybe even survive for more than one season.

WHERE WAS MY MONEY LAST SUMMER, KYRIL?

At the moment, we have just short of £100m in the bank. Over the course of our Premier League season we spent about 96m pounds. That was roughly 5.5m a month in operating costs plus 29m net transfer spend. Of the 66m in operating costs, only 16m was player salaries. We haven’t paid for June yet, so that will go up a little more. The game says we currently have 400k a week of committed salaries, or about 20m over the season. It’s hard for me to estimate our expenses next season since I didn’t screenshot our last Championship campaign. Add in the flux from player sales and new signings, and MBAs everywhere are sweating over their business plans. Bottom line is: we should be fine this season if we don’t blow 70m quid on Scottish wonderkids, but we might end up in the red if we do.

I can work with that.

I was sitting at the desk, trying to crunch the numbers and work out our budget, and Kyril popped by again.

Yes, that’s a real thing. You get relegated and they just hand you 41m the next season. There’s a reason the Championship playoff final is called “the most lucrative game in sport.” We were probably fine with our 100m and some half-decent stewardship of it. Throw another 40m on top, and we can buy even MORE Scottish wonderkids.

In case anyone else wants to plan their promotion season, here’s what we spent in the Premier League:

Even though I have way more money to spend, I don’t want to repeat last summer’s trolley dash. We were really disjointed at the beginning of the season, and a big part of that was all the new faces. I’d like to bring a few players to fill gaps and give us the best chance of immediate promotion. Smart, sensible additions that will improve us both on and off the pitch.

Unfortunately, have a number of relegation release clauses that have just come active, so we may lose a few of our better, more expensive players, which makes my planning harder.

All of these represent significant profit on purchases, but these are all good players and I’d like to keep them. I quickly signed Finley Burns and Lee Farrell to new contracts to get rid of their release clauses. The wages were a small increase on their prior contracts.

He’ll get plenty of minutes in the Championship.

Lee “the Scottish Regret” Ferrell is on a similar deal with a promotion escalator and a relegation reduction, and now–notably–NO release clause. He’s gonna be a star for us, and when he’s captaining us in the Champion’s League in four seasons, I’ll be a genius again.

I’m gambling on the others. Maybe they’ll stay, maybe they’ll go. When I look at only this season, I want to keep everyone, but if I look a little longer term, I can take the departures as an opportunity to upgrade.

Before I purchase anyone, I need to review who we have at the club, on loan, or already coming in who can help us. Here’s a pretty decent view of what a match day squad would look like. I won’t go through these guys one by one since you already know them.

I’ve already extended Cirkin and Neco Williams’ loans, so they’re staying for their third seasons with the club. I looked into signing them permanently, but Spurs want 110m for Cirkin, and Jurgen Klopp won’t even return my WhatsApp messages for Neco.

This is, to my eye, a stronger 11 with better subs than we had in our last tilt at the Championship. DL and AMC could use stronger players, and ST and both wingers could use depth, but we’re talking incremental improvements, not wholesale overhaul.

The first place to look is internally to see if we have anyone ready for first-team football. Our loan and youth players have potential, but I’m not sure any of them are going to be able to contribute.

Patrick Almond is probably the most-developed of our youth players. He has done reasonably well in League One with 6.74 rating across 39 appearances, but he’s far from Premier League quality. I’ll keep him as a fourth centerback unless one of my incoming international players is better suited.

Dan Neil has done well enough in League Two, but he’s also 21 and doesn’t look like he’s anywhere near the level of my first team. I appreciate his versatility, but you have to actually be decent in any one position for the versatility to matter. I think I’ll sell him, to be honest.

Brad Laws has done well in League Two, scoring 16 goals in 42 appearances. He has plenty of room to develop further, too. I wouldn’t want him to play 2000 minutes, but he could play with the U23s and get a few matches with the senior squad.

Niall Maguire has not been great in League Two, and my coaches think he’ll top out as a League One player. His contract expires next summer, so he’ll be off to anyone that wants to pay for him.

Calin Tututa has been in our youth setup all season. He has great acceleration, high determination, and a fantastic work rate (due to me yelling at him so much), but he’s dire in most other areas. His potential is good, and he’s under contract for two more seasons, so I’ll loan him somewhere in League Two.

Isak Solberg was my “break glass in case of emergency” keeper from last December. He’s not ready for the first team unless there’s a dire emergency. I’ll keep Burge as the backup and Richardson in the U23s.

Ian Henderson isn’t ready for the first team, but he’s reasonably close. If he grows on another loan, he might be useful next season. 

We have a few more youth players who have good potential, but aren’t remotely close to the first team.

Ruben Ortega is the oldest of that group. I’ll probably loan him somewhere in League Two. He seems promising and might actually be a useful play for us someday.

The incoming international players are a more interesting lot.

Felipe Augosto is going to relegate Dan Almond to the youth setup or another loan. He’s good enough to play meaningful minutes in the first team right now. Sorry, Dan.

Michal Bednar is not quite as ready. He’s too slow for the wingback role I need, but he has potential, and I’ll see how he develops with playing time in a lower league.

Karel Hysky joins in January, and I have regrets. He has not improved much, and while his tackling is decent for his age, I don’t think he’s going to hit his ceiling. I’ll try to loan him somewhere and hope for the best. He cost 46k, so it’s not a huge loss.

The first of my former FC Copenhagen players. Good physical ability, okay mental. Not good enough to contribute to the first team this season, unfortunately. I wish I hadn’t signed him.

Lars’ is not quite what I want in my first-team squad, but he’s also not far from it. I can see keeping him at the club in the U23s and playing cup minutes to see how he develops.

Actually, Lars, never mind. Cikic is getting all those right winger cup minutes. He’s slower, but better in every other area.

I was thinking of an AMC to take some of Onomah’s minutes. Enric will do fine. I’d say he saved me some money, but he cost 5.25m from Barcelona. He can play on either wing, so that’s good cover for Danjuma and Sima, too.

You all haven’t forgotten Pure Magic, have you?

Wait a tick…

That’s better!

He was the bloke I thought I was signing in January, but Brexit screwed us and we had to wait until he turned 18. He can play on the right wing or at striker.

So the original needs were DL, AMC, ST, and the wings. We have a gap at DL, but we have Enric at AMC, Pure Magic at ST, Cikic at AMR, and a combo of all three to cover AML.

I now need a decent left back, and I think I’m set. The scouts are out scouring the world.

My coaching course finished. Yes, I minmaxed my character.

Check out my media handling. It’s called “this is a stupid chore and there’s little penalty to sending my assistant.”

Also notice the “loyalty to players.” It’s middling, which is fair. On the one hand, I want to be loyal. I do. Look at Lee Farrell and Finley Burns. On the other hand, I have guys on the roster that probably need to move.

This is not a Premier League player. I’m planning to let him run down his contract because he’s my captain and has been important for us. If he were anyone else, he’d be out the door.

Burge is similar. Not terrible, but declining rapidly as he hasn’t had as many minutes. I’m happy to keep him on the books one more season as the backup.

Dobson is worse. He needs to go, if I’m being brutally honest.

The first of the release clause dominoes fell. Emi Martinez, signed on a free in January, has left for Bournemouth.

Maybe I should have tried to get a higher relegation release clause, but I thought we’d stay up and it would be moot. I also thought, “well, if we go down, 12.5m for a player signed for free is pretty good…” And here we are. Good luck, dude. You were kinda rubbish for us. Now I gotta replace him.

Thinking about my midfield situation, I’ve decided to let Moder leave. He was great for us in the Championship and okay in the Premier League, but he’s a loan player, and I’d rather develop my own players than someone else’s. I considered keeping him, and Brighton only wanted 12m to make the move permanent, but when I looked around, I found other, better options to play as my deep-lying playmaker and box-to-box midfielder.

Dzenis Burnic fits the bill reasonably well. His personality is “resolute,” which is helpful for a team that seems a bit Spursy. I need more professional, perfectionist, and resolute players to help my wonderkids grow. Dzenis looks to be a downgrade on Emi Martinez physically, but when you look at the actual stats, it’s not so bad.

His higher aggression will help in the midfield, and he’s a better passer. His concentration and decisions could be better, but he has high determination, which will help him mentor my wonderkids. He’ll do fine as my deep lying playmaker. Oh, and he’s free. I could spend money on a midfielder, and I probably will, but he looked good. I love a bargain.

Long-serving utility man Luke O’Nien left for League One QPR for 550k. I could have gotten more had we stayed in the Premier League. Alas. 

I’m not going to directly replace him, though I do still need a second incoming midfielder.

The second relegation release clause domino fell. This sucked. I had just signed Jimmy to a new contract, and I was AN IDIOT and included a 10.75m relegation release clause. He even got 10% of the transfer fee, so he picked up a cool 1.1m bonus for the move.

Rather than let all my starters leave, I decided to be a bit more proactive.

Is Joshy a brilliant player? No, not really. Is he a versatile player who has played a ton of minutes for us over the last two seasons? Yes, 100%. This keeps him on the books until he’s 30, which hopefully means I sell him before then after our first season back in the Premier League. It also means we got rid of his 5m release clause, which was much too low for how important he has been to us.

Hey, you remember how I keep kicking myself about spending a bunch of money on a Scottish wonderkid? I’ve done it again, but this time for a Serbian wonderkid!

Dragic is set to join us next summer (because I have too many incoming youth players this summer… eek). He will be my Dennis Cirkin replacement. His mental abilities are amazing at only 17 years old, and his personality is Resolute, so he’ll likely reach or get near his potential. His physical stats are good and will improve. His passing is incredible. His defensive stats are good. His crossing and dribbling suck, but they’ll get better, and I’m willing to make him more of a fullback than a wingback. The negatives are the 16.25m transfer fee and the 68m release clause, but I am actually cash-rich this summer, and this represents 18% of my budget rather than the 50% Lee Farrell did. That release clause will be moot if we’re promoted, too, so it’s much less of a worry than a lower relegation release clause would have been.

Also, we just had three players leave for a combined 24m, so I have money to spare without putting a dent in the overall bank balance. (Yes, I’m trying to justify this to myself, but I truly think this is a good deal for the club.)

I picked up another South American wonderkid. (I need to run the NewGAN tool again to update all the regen faces.)

John Ramirez is only 15, and he cost a bit under 1m. He’s set to join in two years, so he won’t impact my immediate limit of six under-21 foreign transfers per season. For the price, I thought he looked like a good gamble given his age. He could be incredible by the time he reaches us. He could also be a decent squad player that gets sold after 6-12 months. I don’t think I’ll regret the money, at least.

Haha, check this out. In looking for another midfielder to replace Moder, one of my scouts even suggested this:

I rate the lad, but not quite that much. He won’t even be here for two years!

With Moder leaving, I decided we needed a little more veteran depth in midfield to provide cover for the defenders. I love wonderkids, but they’re part of a balanced diet, not an end unto themselves. Also I can’t sign any more this window.

He’s a pretty solid midfield destroyer. Good marking, good tackling, high bravery, high work rate. He’ll run his socks off and give us a solid spine. For 6.5m with a 1.9m addon if he plays 50 games, I figure it’s good value.

Burnic can play DLP, Sunjic can play CM in support or cover the more defensive duties, and Farrell is already looking like a great progressive passer. MAX POWER can pick up minutes to cover for fatigue and injury. I’m liking this midfield more and more.

Not a surprise, but still sad. Fans of the Premier League, we shall return!

Kyril popped by my office with his expectations for the season.

We can and should do better in the league, and I couldn’t care less about the cups. If we’re near the top of the table, Kyril won’t care, either. 

Preseason training kicked off in late June, and a bid came in for Denver Hume. I was inclined to keep him as cover, but he’s frankly not good.

Safe travels, friend. You have been helpful.

That leaves us with minimal cover at left back, so I went scouring the world again and turned up another solid-looking player with an expiring contract. Victor Hugo is set to arrive in January. I’m a little worried about yet another foreign youngster, but maybe the rules are per calendar year? Right? I hope!

I’m signing every famous writer I can find as a matter of principle. Hugo is joining us on a free, which feels fitting for a writer. He types, grimacing.

In outgoing news, a few fringe players departed.

George Dobson went to Nottingham Forest for 1.5m. He fetched more than I would have expected 24 months ago and far less than I had hoped six weeks ago.

Jordan Willis was supposed to go Wycombe for 350k, but he rejected their contract. Remember that Bailey Wright deal for 2m to LAFC that fell through? What is it about these League One centerbacks getting my hopes up and then dashing them. I finally got rid of him just as the window closed. 

Isak Solberg, mentioned above as the “break glass in case of emergency” keeper, went to Brentford for 525k plus 200k addons and 50% of the profit from the next sale. He may develop into a good keeper, but he wasn’t in my plans. I’m happy to make the money on a free signing, though.

It feels a bit ignominious, but Ross Stewart has left the club on a free. The man scored 30 goals for us and powered us from League One to the Championship. I’ve sent a case of whiskey and a handwritten note thanking him for his service. He did land safely at Sheffield Wednesday, back in League One. I hope he fires them straight to the Championship like he did for us.

Bailey Wright has finally departed the club. He signed on a Bosman (free) transfer with New England Revolution back in the early early spring. Farewell, Bailey. You were a good player for us in League One.

Another higher-profile departure made my feed.

Whoah. Pep is gone. Txiki did not call me about the open position. Must have misplaced my number.

As our first match approached, I was bullish. We got pummeled last season, but we’ve learned from that and came back better prepared. I will be disappointed if we aren’t in the playoffs. The revamped squad is better than the old one, and the players that were here before have improved. I think automatic promotion is within reach. I’d call it something like 25% win the league, 25% automatic promotion, 45% playoffs, 5% miss the playoffs.

After destroying all competition in the preseason, we started the Championship in early August with high morale and excellent cohesion. My first-choice tactic is the old 4231 that we used previously.

This will let us dominate possession, generate lots of chances, and hopefully score lots of goals. 

We’re fluid in most categories, and the rest will follow as the newer players get more time in their roles.

Our corner routine is as boring as vanilla ice cream, but it works. Fire the ball at the tall bloke’s forehead and see what happens.

We dominated the first three matches of the season, though the scoreline didn’t always show it. 2-0, 1-0, 1-0 meant we took 9 out of 9 points and looked good in the process.

The fourth match was in the Carabao Cup against fellow Championship side Huddersfield Town. We crushed them 4-0 and averaged out the xG from the earlier matches. Pace yourselves, dudes!

My Serbian wonderkid, Cikic, was supposed to give us depth at the wing so Sima could move forward, but he hasn’t gotten his work permit yet, and I had to send him on loan to MLS. I’m hoping he can get some Serbian youth callups while he’s at San Jose. Part of the problem is injuries. Enric has been hurt, and Gooch picks up a knock every other week. Hopefully Enric’s return to the lineup gives me flexibility on the right so I can rotate Sima up top more often. In the meantime, I’ve taken Brad Laws off the loan list. He’ll be the cover and go out on loan in January.

Our first setback of the season came at home against West Bromwich Albion. A first-half goal from West Brom ruined our perfect streak of clean sheets, but we scored two of our own and took all three points after dominating the second half.

We followed that by going to Swansea and losing 0-1 in a match where–you guessed it–we were the better side. More shots, more shots on target, better xG, but we couldn’t finish and a defensive error gifted Swansea their goal. If you stick to the “process over results” mantra, we did fine. 

As I feared earlier, our under-21 foreign signings limit has struck.

On the plus side, he was the player I was least happy about, so it’s not a big loss. My real worry is what happens in January when Karel Hysky and Victor Hugo are supposed to join. I have a feeling I’ll be trying to sign Victor on a contract starting in the summer. Oopsie. I just hope he’ll accept it.

We visited bitter rivals Newcastle United to close out our eighth (!!!) match of the month in the 2nd round of the Carabao Cup. It went poorly, but that was largely due to an early red card. We held a 2-1 lead for much of the match, but the wheels fell off at the end, even with my usual shithousery. Some days you’re the dog, some days you’re the hydrant.

I’m not going to lose sleep over it.

Kyril popped around after the match with some notes on our financial performance. 

We aren’t the biggest spenders in the division, but we’re not quite the scrappy underdogs we used to be, either. Eh, I can try to spin it, but Sunderland should be the biggest club in the Championship. There are good teams in the division, but we’re now one of them with the players to back up my confidence.

We’re rich, biatch. We lost money on the month, but we have gobs in the bank. I’m curious to see how much we lose in September, but we should have plenty to see us through the season. If we don’t go back up, the next season could be a little more worrisome, but now that I have capital to work with I feel confident I can bring in free and cheap players, improve them a bit, and sell them for a profit. The pre-promotion Brentford model, basically. I’m already well on my way.

Our transfers spanned June and July, so technically two seasons, but all during this transfer window. We spent 17.8m inbound and gained 30m from outbound. I wasn’t trying to be thrifty, but I wanted value, and I feel like I found it. Our starting 11 is strong. Our backups are good. We’re not as deep as maybe we need to be, but we are rich and can spend more in January, if necessary. 

It sucks that we’re looking at the Championship table and not the Premier League table, but things are about as good as they can be. We’re in a three-way tie at the top of the table. I’m confident we can beat every team in the division. We’ll drop more points, but we have the quality to finish with a higher total than last time.

After 8 matches in the month, I’m knackered. That’s it for now. See you next time, footy nerds.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – An Interlude

Welcome back, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

It’s the next morning, and I’m still reeling. This is only a video game, but I had such hope. Truly, when that Max Power penalty went in, I thought we had done it. I thought we had defied the odds and survived in the most dramatic fashion possible. 

The promotion out of League One was competent football management. I’ve played this game a long time, and I didn’t make many basic errors. The squad was fine, I hit on a solid tactic for my players, and we outplayed the teams around us. We might have been a little lucky to win the league, but only a little. 

The promotion out of the Championship was basically a miracle. We had absolutely no business winning that league. With a fair wind and sturdy sails we might have managed back-to-back promotions via the playoffs and felt like it was reasonable if slightly lucky, but not walking the league like we did. Thirteen goals out of Troy Parrott was great, then he went so ice cold that Pfizer is trying to get him to help refrigerate their vaccines. Dan N’Lundulu was a gift from heaven in January and carried us in the second half.

Even with N’Lundulu, we were not prepared for the Premier League. It wasn’t even that we didn’t have proper depth. We didn’t have a proper first 11. I had four regular starters from the League One team in Power, Burge, Willis, and Stewart. Hume and O’Nien didn’t play much, but they both saw some Premier League minutes. 

Other thoughts:

  1. I am an idiot
  2. Much like feeding gremlins, don’t make important transfers after midnight
  3. Spending 17.5m on 16 year-old Lee Farrell was a colossal screw up in terms of squad building; that money should have been spent on three players to rebuild the team’s spine 
  4. It was a mistake to have Ross Stewart as my only backup striker.
  5. It was a mistake to only bring in one young centerback (though Finley was actually solid) 
  6. My summer winger purchases were rubbish. Danjuma was okay, but Diangana was dianbolical. 
  7. Burge has been with us since League One, and he is barely Championship quality. I should have replaced him sooner than January.
  8. Two of my midfielders that saw significant Premier League minutes were from League One and half-decent, but not good enough for the Premier League.
  9. Starting with the possession oriented 4231 was a mistake
  10. My backup tactics relied on wingers that underperformed 
  11. The 352 never really worked, but I didn’t have the wingers to consistently play anything else
  12. Two strikers worked well, and I am strongly considering a 442 and a 4411 if we’re promoted again

My suggestions for anyone getting promoted are:

  • Be ruthless and cull the players that aren’t good enough
  • Don’t overspend on a single player the first season; 4-6m is probably the sweet spot for capable players
  • Have a plan A and a plan B for your main tactics plus a plan C for when you need to shut down a game and want your players to be comfortable with a Defensive mentality. Next time I’ll do a 442 (balanced), 4411 (cautious), and a 4141 (defensive)

Looking back at the season, we missed survival by 1 point. There were so many times we could have turned a narrow loss into a draw. So. Many. Times. It’s maddening to look at now. 

Deep breath. Deep breath. We have a promotion campaign to engineer. Let’s get to it.

See you soon, footy nerds. 

Update: the summer transfer post is available here

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 3, Part 2

Welcome back, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

Reinforcements have arrived.

Pretty decent player who will slot into my midfield immediately.

Confusingly, the guy with the goalkeeper name is a midfielder, and the guy with a midfielder name is a goalkeeper. As mentioned in the last update, Meggie has pretty good stats, and the money I saved on his transfer (he was free) I can use for another striker and maybe even a winger.

I went striker hunting, hoping to find someone in his mid-20s who could play immediately while giving me a hope of resale value in two or three seasons when (I hope (there’s a lot of hope in Football Manager)) the club outgrows him. I found this guy with a 1.3m release clause, and he’s just a hair below N’Lundulu, according to my scouts. Oh, and he’s only 17* with tons of potential? It’s like catnip. How can I not? I am a genius!

*don’t be fooled by the grown-man face

Oh, wait. One problem. It goes through in June. Damn it! I’m an idiot! (Seriously, though, he looks like he’s going to be pure magic. Puric, as it were.)

Early in January Aston Villa came to the Stadium of Light. We went up early, held on until late, and let Grealish score an equalizer. And then–somehow, some way–Ross Stewart scored his first-ever Premier League goal. Three more points on the board, baby! The win lifted us out of the relegation zone for the first time two months.

Leeds followed Villa, this time in a must-win relegation 6-pointer. We scored a penalty early in the second half only to give up a goal on a corner moments later.  We played tolerably well, but we couldn’t get the ball on target. We claimed another precious point, but it feels as if we let two more slip through our fingers.

After watching Grady Diangana put up an average rating of 6.5 across half a season, I gave up and transfer listed him. I also switched us to a three-at-the-back formation with no wingers.

Grady was pissed about the transfer listing. Does selling a guy after only six months make me Jose Mourinho? If you wanted to level the accusation, I don’t know that I could effectively argue against it. Grady’s not our sole problem, but he’s also been shockingly poor in a position where we desperately needed the help.

The first test of the new formation was away at West Ham, where we fell 1-2 in a match West Ham dominated. The second test was at home against Burnley, and while we played well, we lost 1-2 again. This stung a little, since I figured we needed to win it, but I couldn’t keep on with the same tactic and our rubbish wingers. Wolves away was another must-win. It ended in the same 1-2 as the others, and we didn’t play well. My sense of unease increased to “the killer is in the house” levels.

Amongst this poor run our old friend Patrick Jackman has been attracting significant interest from other clubs, and he complained about me not letting him leave. He’s off to Brentford for 450k and a 50% sell-on clause.

With 6 finishing and not great mental abilities, I figure he’ll be lucky to reach his potential. If he does, and Brentford sell him, we’ll reap the reward. Also, I couldn’t find a loan for him and he was nowhere near the level I need to be getting minutes as we fight against relegation. Safe travels, my dude. (Nice glow-up, by the way.)

My hunt for better wingers and forwards continued through the month, but there was no one that was the level we needed and a price we could afford.

Oussama Idrissi is a good example. He’s Championship quality, pretty good stats across the board, a little room to grow, and Wolves want 12.75m for him. My budget is 5m.

We did pick up a few bob from an old sell-on clause.

I’ll go buy the squad some coffee and pastys with the proceeds. I hope West Ham works out better for him than Man United did.

Our second FA Cup match was away at Crystal Palace. I could not have possibly cared less about the FA Cup at that point in the season, so I threw in the backups and a few youth players. We lost 2-5. It was entertaining, but we were even more terrible than I expected. Ah well. Now we can focus on the league.

My efforts to flog the utterly lackluster Grady Diangana succeeded.

He came in for 6.5m and left after six months for 9.5m. I’d call it good business, except I really would have rather he worked out as a winger. 

This money was immediately turned into a replacement who is capable of playing AMR in our older tactics or ST in our new 352. Abdallah Sima is yet another player I’ve picked up from Prague, though he’s from Slavia Prague rather than Sparta Prague like my coming youth players. He cost 3.3m rising to 4.8 after 50 appearances, which he may or may not ever reach. I have him coming on relatively high wages of 39.5k p/w, but if we go down they’ll see a reduction.

He’s a pretty good winger/striker, with reasonable pace and acceleration and very good jumping, heading, finishing, and decisions. He should be able to get on the end of Neco’s crosses.

Our next big must-win was at Sheffield United, who we already beat at home early in the season. I’ve tweaked the 352 a little to get the midfielders forward more. An early goal from Dan N’Lundulu got us off to a great start, but we conceded two in the second half to fall 1-2 AGAIN. The shots against and xG numbers were good, at least.

I made some more tweaks to the 352 before Fulham came to visit. Again, we scored early, this time via some wonderful forward interplay. We started to look shaky going into halftime, so entering the second half I had us switch to a defensive mentality. We actually held on this time and took the vital three points with a scrappy 1-0 victory.

The win pulled us clear of the drop zone, but the teams behind us have games in hand, so we’re far from safe. So far it’s 19 points from 22 matches or 0.86 per match, well below the target. In theory the January run was going to help us build some buffer, but in reality we didn’t even hold serve. The season is far from finished, but my level of concern has ticked up a notch.

We went to Anfield in February. I wish we hadn’t.

Spurs came to the Stadium of Light a few days later. We had more shots, more shots on target, and a better xG. Spurs mustered only three shots on target. They all went in. We lost 1-3.

I can see things working in the tactic. We’re getting good interplay between the forwards, and if they’re isolated 2 v 2 against the opposition centerbacks, they can get the ball into the box and get a good shot away. The problem is that even with 5 defensive players and a holding midfielder we’re still giving up too many quality shots.

We had another must-win away at Newcastle. We got battered 0-4, but the game (and I will swear under oath this is true) crashed two days after the match. When I reloaded it, we had to re-play Newcastle. We went down early to a poor piece of defending capped by a well-taken Allen Saint-Maximin curler. Then we scraped and clawed and kicked our way to four yellow cards, two goals, and a famous, shithouse victory, including being saved by a late offsides call against Newcastle.

People, we were DEAD after the original match. Our season was in tatters with us rock bottom and 9 goals behind on goal differential. This victory didn’t lift us out of the relegation places, but it gave us hope that we might yet escape.

Also, yes, I saved the game as soon as I was back to the main screen. Just in case.🙂

Our next run of matches was vs 2nd place Man United (eek), at Southampton (winnable), vs Leicester (should be at least drawable), vs Watford (winnable), and at Norwich (winnable). I would love to come out of that run with six points. Anything less and we would be in the mire for real and hoping the sides above us falter.

United came into the match with a better squad, far more points, and the odds in their favor. My expectations were low, and the outcome justified them.

We should have taken something from the Southampton match. We didn’t. Three unanswered goals and hardly a fight in response. I gave the lads the hairdryer.

It’s not all doom and gloom in Sunderland. Well, the northeastern English weather may all be gloom in March, but our very obliging guests from Leicester came to visit and swept the doom away by allowing us three goals and three points. Thanks, Foxes!

Don’t worry, the doom didn’t stay away long. Calum Knight, a promising Scottish youth midfielder, broke his leg, and he’s due to miss six months. That will seriously impede his development. (No, not the same guy I spent 17.5m on; that’s Lee Farrell.)

I only thought the Foxes were obliging guests. The Hornets came to town and gifted us FOUR goals and three more points. Jakub Moder hit a double with low probability shots. I’ll take ’em. That took us to 28 points and lifted us out of the relegation places!

After two wonderful matches at home, we ventured down the coast to Norwich.

The Canaries started the match two places ahead of us in the table, and an early Sima header forced another reshuffle. We climbed, temporarily at least, to 14th, only to concede 9 minutes later. I told the lads to stay cautious through the first half, and as the Canaries flagged in the second half I sent on Dan N’Lundulu and opened us up to to be more aggressive. We generated some shots, but couldn’t get closer than rippling the side netting on a set piece. At about 80 minutes we reverted to being defensive and wasting time and saw out a cagey 1-1 draw.

I wanted six points from those five matches. We got seven. I can’t complain.

Our April matches are at Chelsea (lol), vs 3rd place Everton (eek), at Arsenal (ffs), vs West Ham (winnable, hopefully), and vs Man City (lolsob). We will be lucky to take 1 point from that shitshow. If we can steal a victory anywhere, I’ll be over the moon.

Our youth intake arrived. It’s… not great. Our standout centerback is four stars and a Casual personality. That’s not the absolute worst, but it’s bad. The two kids with “good” personalities are only Fairly Professional, and they’re 2 and 3 star potential. On the plus side, I have a crop of mercenary wonderkids arriving in the summer, so this won’t matter much long-term.

This kid isn’t one of ours, but the scouts turned him up as a prospect. I did a double-take on his name.

Fun fact: you can give any player a nickname and it will replace their display name while keeping their real name on their profile page. (I’m not signing him, but he’s actually pretty good and it’s not impossible that we go in for him in a year or two.)

Remember a year ago when I complained about Chelsea signing Moukoko and how he’s amazing and they don’t need the help? We went to Stamford Bridge, gave up an early goal (to Marcel Sabitzer, another player Chelsea did NOT need) but managed to score one of our own on 21 minutes. We then shithoused our way to a 1-1 draw, utterly nullifying Moukoko along the way. We already have our one point from this hell month. The rest is gravy.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin smashed us for three goals the last time we saw him. On Everton’s trip to the Stadium of Light he bagged one early. Dude just gets a half-yard of space and puts his forehead on the end of crosses. It’s incredible. Everton may have DCL, but we have Joshy. A few minutes after DCL’s headed goal, Josh Onomah blasted a wonder strike into the top corner from about 30 yards. The rafters shook. Everton were better, but it didn’t matter. We played cautiously for much of the match, then shut up shop for the last 10 minutes to keep the score level at one apiece and earn another vital point.

Unfortunately for us, Neco Williams took a spill in training and fractured his arm. With him facing 4 to 7 weeks on the sidelines (c’mon, doc, you can’t be any more precise than that?), we will be expecting Sofiane Alakouch to earn his megabucks.

No sooner does that news land than we’re in the press being held up as a model club.

Yay for sustainable football, but I would have happily spent that money if the board would have let me!

The Hell Month of April continued with a trip to London to visit Arsenal at the Emirates. We lost 3-1 and could have no complaints about it. To add injury to insult, we lost Abdullah Sima for three weeks to a groin strain. He’s only averaged a 6.74 rating in his time with us, but that’s one of the better ratings in the side. His 3 goals and 3 assist have been vital.

Going into the month, I thought West Ham at home would be our best chance of taking any points. In retrospect, that was wrong. They’re solidly in 7th with a wide margin between them an Burnley in 8th. Chelsea, it turns out, are in 9th and on only 40 points after 32 matches. How can they be so bad with so many good players?

Amusingly, the media are talking about the relegation battle, and we aren’t even in the conversation.

Look at that table, though. We’re two points above 19th place and very much still in peril.

Imagine facing West Ham, a team you think you can beat, and forgetting that your mentality is set to Defensive for an hour of the match. Imagine changing it to Attacking, only to be undone 10 minutes later by the softest of soft penalty calls for a push in the box. We lost 0-1. Big sigh.

Manchester City came into the match in 4th place. They did not dominate us as much as you might expect given their history, their current position in the league table, and our form. But they still dominated us. Raheem Sterling scored a superlative goal on a counter-attack from one of our corners. Foden earned a penalty well into the second half on another long, mazy solo run into our box. We never even looked close to scoring.

At the beginning of Hell Month I wanted one point. We delivered two. I can have no complaints.

The table is ugly, but survival is still within our grasp.

The run-in is at Villa, vs Wolves, and at Leeds. We could win any of these matches. We could lose any of these matches. Our target of 40 would make us safe, but we won’t win all three. We need four points, I think, and we’ll be safe. Our season hinges on getting them.

First up: Aston Villa. We came out with a positive mentality, trying to get something going offensively without over-stretching ourselves. Even so, we managed zero shots for the first half until stoppage time when N’Lundulu, with only the keeper to beat, smashed a shot into the bottom of the upright. It did not go in. On the plus side, we didn’t concede–or even look terribly in danger–until the second half when Xerdan Shaqiri hit a thunderbastard into the top corner from absolutely nowhere. A second yellow card for Jakub Moder pretty much killed any chance we had of scraping a draw. Villa 1 – 0 Black Cats.

We put up a good fight against Wolves, but not good enough. We needed a win, but even a draw would have helped. We went up early via an own goal, but Wolves grabbed one back on a corner in first half stoppage time. I thought we were good late in the second half and went fully defensive with time wasting to 11 to see out the draw. They scored at 90+2. Sunderland 1 – 2 Wolves.

We have Leeds left. We’re in 18th place with 31 points. Leicester and Sheffield are ahead of us, both with 34. We MUST win.

I’ve gone through every set piece and tuned it to target Finley Burns, our tallest player and best leaper. I’ve reviewed every position and tweaked the roles to maximize our players’ abilities. I don’t know what else can be done at this point.

We came out in our 352 and Leeds were all over us for the first half hour, eventually scoring on 37 minutes. At halftime, I had enough. We had to do something. Our season was on the line. I switched us to the 4231 and pulled Dunne (centerback) for Gooch (winger). Gooch took a knock on a tackle moments after entering the match, but he then made his greatest contribution to Sunderland Football Club. On one leg he fired a banger into the far corner from what was pretty much two counties over. Tie game. 1-1.

I moved us to a Very Attacking mentality and increased the tempo. We had to get forward. We had to score.

Cue a corner on 85 minutes.  Finley Burns attacks the near post. MAX POWER lasers a ball toward his forward. Some foolish, wonderful, beautiful Leeds player shoves my lovely Finley in the back. It’s a stone cold penalty.

MAX POWER steps up.

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLL.

Leeds 1-2 Sunderland. We went into full shithouse mode immediately. Defensive mentality, time wasting at every opportunity, playing for set pieces. Everything. Max, on a yellow card, came off and Emi Martinez came on to shield the defense.

Four minutes of added time signaled. I learned that I could, in virtual fact, hold my breath for four minutes. Whistle. Victory!

It wasn’t enough.

Wait, what? you’re asking. How can this be?

Leicester drew with Newcastle. Sheffield scraped a 1-0 over Everton. We had to win, but we needed a little help, too. We didn’t get it. We’re going back to the Championship. Safety was 35 points this season; we only mustered 34.

I. Am. Gutted.

The board, however, are fine.

This is Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked, and I’m not sacked yet.

I gotta step away from the computer now. I need to process this. This is, I think, the true Sunderland experience. 

See you next time, footy nerds.

Update: I have posted an interlude in which I decompress and ruminate on the lessons learned from the last campaign. You can find it here.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 3, Part 1

Welcome back, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

It’s six matches into our first season in the Premier League, and the sack has never been so near. After picking up 6 out of 18 points, this happened on the eve of facing Manchester United:

I had a few opportunities to sign an upgrade on Burge, including a Uruguayan that would have cost 800k. Instead, I spent my money on a 16 year old Scottish kid. I am definitely good at this game, okay. A 16 year old wonderkid is definitely going to put the club on better long-term footing than a second season in the Premier League.

I am so dumb.

In my defense, both my fullbacks managed to get sent off against Manchester United, so losing away and “only” shipping two goals is a moral victory, right?
So look. We need to have a serious conversation about how we’re going to remain in the Premier League. My flippant hopes about coming into the league and making waves by being Barcelona of the North have crashed on the hard shoals of reality. We are definitely having the Blackpool 2010 experience, not the Leeds 2020 experience, and if we don’t turn this around, we’re going to be a proper Fulham. (Apologies to all my non-footy nerd readers who have absolutely no idea what any of that just meant.)

We needs points. Historically the magic number is 40 to ensure safety. In the last two seasons, we could have stayed up with 35 and 32, respectively, so 40 should be more than enough.

The usual formula for getting there is 11 wins for 33 points and 7 draws for 7 more = 40. With a 38 match season, that’s 1.05 points per match. So far this season we have played 8 matches and collected 7 points, or 0.875 per match.

We are currently off the pace, hence us having this painful conversation. Where to find 11 wins? We have two already, against Sheffield United and Newcastle.

Looking at the table, that’s excellent news because we need every point off our fellow relegation candidates.

When I look at our schedule and try to find 9 more winnable matches, I see the following:

  • 28 September: vs Norwich
  • 15 October: at Watford
  • 7 January: vs Leeds (Bielsa is at Tottenham, and Leeds in FM are not as effective as Leeds in reality)
  • 14 January: vs Burnley
  • 24 January: at Sheffield United
  • 28 January: vs Fulham
  • 11 February: at Newcastle
  • 25 February: at Southampton
  • 11 March: vs Watford
  • 13 May: vs Wolves
  • 21 May: at Leeds

We’re obviously not going to win all those, but we need to win most, draw some more, and steal a few draws against the top half of the table.

Do I honestly think we can do it? No! But we’ll do our damndest, and even if we fail, we’ve have a glorious crop of wonderkids coming to make our next tilt at the windmill go more smoothly.

Current tactics are the old standby 4231.

A Mourinho-esque 433

And an attacking 433 gegenpress

The first of our must-win matches was Norwich at home. I used the 433 with an attacking gegenpress and rotated Gooch back into the starting lineup since Diangana has been poor. I also reviewed my corner routine and tweaked it to ensure we kept 3 men back and had our tallest players in the box. We outplayed Norwich for the entire match and only took a point from a scoreless draw. Our wingers are rubbish.

Our wingers are so rubbish that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t change to a midfield diamond or a 352 and just… not have wingers. The problem is that my second striker is still Ross Stewart, and he’s barely Championship calibre. I’ll give it a few more matches and see how things go.

On the plus side, we spent 45m pounds over the summer, and we are still flush with cash.

That 4.6m in profit will keep accruing over the coming months, so even if we go back down, we should be in excellent shape for a few seasons to come.

Fun fact: if a player has a poor performance–rated 6.4 or lower–you can discipline them for it. That includes issuing a warning up to fining multiple weeks of wages. If you do choose to warn them, they will usually accept it, and they may accept it and promise to do better in the future. That promise translates to a straight stat increase of either work rate or determination.

Our lad Scott Forbes is a promising young academy striker. After turning in a 6.0 performance against Manchester City U18s, I issued him a warning for poor performance. This immediately took his work rate from 8 to 9. Not bad! I actually have high hopes for this kid; look at that pace, acceleration and dribbling. If he didn’t already play for me, I would had tried to poach him. (Maybe not, with the mediocre mentals, but the kid could very well develop into an excellent Premier League player, and I already have bigger clubs trying to buy him.)

His competition in our academy is Brad Laws, on loan at Stockport, and the previously mentioned Patrick “kick the old man in the shins” Jackman.

Laws could come along and be useful, but I worry about Jackman. I’ll give them both some more loans, but I don’t see either of them cracking the first team in the next two seasons.

We went to Leicester. It went poorly. Whatever.

I’ve been adjusting my corner routine on a per-match basis to prevent counter-attacks against us and to give us counter-attack options when we’re defending. It hasn’t made any obvious difference, but we haven’t had any successful counter-attacks against us, either.

We went to Watford, our second “must-win” match from the list above. Guess what, Black Cats? We were great! Arnaut Danjuma scored a brace from the left wing, Neco Williams added a scrappy rebound, and we strolled to a 3-0 victory. (I ran the vertical tiki taka 4231 and we dominated possession throughout, too.) That’s 11 points from 11 played, which nearly puts us back on track for our points target for the season. It also lifts us clear of the relegation zone for the time being.

Only by 3 points, but I’m happy to have a modicum of breathing space.

The next four were vs Chelsea, vs Arsenal, at Everton, and at Man City.
We played well against Chelsea, holding them for 62 minutes until… they got a red card. Then we held them the rest of the match to take a point from a scoreless draw. Obviously, I would have preferred to win, and I did switch our mentality from defensive to balanced, but we couldn’t break them down in the 30 minutes remaining.

And then we had a blessing:

And a curse:

Three starters injured, including our keeper. Our backup keeper is also injured, and our best third option is this lad from the academy:

Does anyone have Joe Hart’s number? (Spurs supporters just cringed.)
The best options I could find on zero notice were these two lads:

They both have huge holes in their games. Solberg has decent aerial reach and command of his area, but he’s so slow. Leban has good pace, bravery, and concentration, but terrible command of his area.

Given that we’re about to be under siege by multiple sides far superior to us, I don’t think we will be needing much sweeper keeping, so I’ve gone with Solberg. He’s here on a two year deal making 900 quid a week. 

Unfortunately, Solberg hadn’t committed to his contract by the time the Arsenal match kicked off, so we had poor Lloyd Neale between the uprights. He was kind of terrible, and there was no repeat of our defensive solidity against Chelsea. I feel bad, but I chewed his ass for it, and he picked up an extra point of work rate. I also chewed on Dunne (no effect), Alakouch (+1 determination), and Danjuma (+1 work rate). A small silver lining, I guess.

The worse news is that both N’Lundulu and Williams were injured during the match. Dan’s was minor, but Neco’s was for 4 to 7 weeks.

Neco is so good. Unfortunately, his Liverpool contract runs until 2025, and I’m not sure how to pry him away from them. I can try to keep loaning him for a while. It’s not like he’s going to be starting ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Oh, and fun fact. Our next two matches vs Everton and Man City? There’s an entire World Cup between them. I could have just suffered with my youth keeper against Everton and had Burge back by the end of the break. I am bad at this game. (If Solberg develops into a world beater, I will consider myself a genius, this unfortunate series of events be damned.)

Solberg’s first match was against Everton away. We went down on 31 minutes to a Calvert-Lewin header. Richarlison doubled the lead on 75 minutes as I was moving us from the defensive 433 to the attacking 4231. My change had no effect, and Calvert-Lewin scored again from a corner on 88 minutes. We lost again, and I couldn’t even be angry about it. We were outclassed.

Going into the long World Cup break we are on 12 points and in the relegation zone. We also had the second-worst goal differential in the league (-16), better only than Watford at -18. I was worried, but not panicked. We only needed a few results from our four “easy” matches in January to shoot us right up the table.

Cue elevator music while the World Cup runs. Denver Hume, our old League One right back, came by my office to complain about his lack of playing time. I offered to sell him and he backed slowly out the door. Moments later Anthony Ralston came in and made the same complaint to the same result. I’m sorry dudes, you have to be better than Neco Williams if you want to start matches in the Premier League.

I appreciate how Hume helped us to back to back promotions, but the club’s ambitions have outgrown his talent. He’ll be leaving in January if I can find a buyer. Ralston can stay until summer.

Hume and Ralston came back after the above conversations to talk about how they don’t think they’re good enough to play for us. Hume backed down when I suggested I sell him, but Ralston actually asked to leave. I transfer listed him and asked for 6m and immediately had an offer from LA Galaxy for 3.4m.

Hmm, LA Galaxy, you’re thinking. That sounds familiar.

Yes, the same club that has agreed to buy Alex Pritchard for 3.5m. And look, they have two existing players under contract that are surely on Designated Player wages.

We’ll just wait a bit on this one, I think. I’d rather sell Pritchard and his expiring contract first. MLS burned me once last season; they won’t burn me twice.

I waited like 5 minutes.

I stalled them, and when they came back I took a gamble to see if they’d pay me 5m for him. They agreed. So my free transfer came in for six months, played a total of 316 minutes at a 6.74 rating and should, hopefully, make me 5 million quid. I am a genius again!

While waiting on the World Cup to finish, I decided to play with the NewGAN face generation tool. It uses a generative adversarial network to create human-like faces. The steps above explain how to use it, and I’ve followed them to generate faces for all the regen players in my save.

You remember Lee Farrell? Here’s the before:

And here’s how he looks after going to a proper stylist.

Guy is still only 17, and that pic makes him look like he’s 25 (or related to Cristian Pulisic), but it’s quite an upgrade, eh? I’ll go through all our other youth players after the season to look at their progress and compare the before and after photos of their glow-ups. The tool does a pretty decent job of matching the players’ birth locations to faces that could be from the same region, though apparently it struggles with South America.

We’re about to find out if my investment in David Scully, our early summer hire as Head of Youth Development, has paid off. It’s not looking great so far, but if we have a Model Professional keeper or centerback prospect, I’ll be pleased.

Because apparently it’s not enough to sign one goalkeeper in December, I’ve signed another.

Phelipe is pretty okay. Better than Burge, not as good as the guys I could have paid to bring in, but I didn’t pay anything for him, so. I’m planning for him to take a fair chunk of Burge’s minutes, develop a bit further, and probably get sold on in 12-18 months at a massive profit. (I’m still riding the high of selling Ralston for 5m, in case you were wondering.)

We went to Manchester for our date with Pep Guardiola. We played tragic, despicable, negative football. We held on for 51 minutes, then collapsed like my willpower in the presence of cinnamon rolls. We only shipped two goals out of 21 shots, so that’s good, right? That’s three losses in a row, but we did steal that point from Chelsea back in late October, so we actually over-achieved my expectations for that run of games.

Our last match before the close of the year was supposed to be away at Man City, but the FA Cup slipped one more in against Carlisle. I rotated everyone except Dobson in midfield and Burge in goal and put us into the 4321 formation. Carlisle managed to get a red card on 26 minutes. You might think our Premier League side, even heavily rotated, could manhandle a pack of League Two cloggers, especially when they only have ten players on the pitch. Wouldn’t that be nice. Instead, they ran us ragged for 120 agonizing, futile minutes. Did I want to win this and deal with an even-more-congested second half of the season? Not precisely. I wanted to win it to get a little morale boost before a run of winnable Premier League games. After six penalties, George Dobson fired home to seal the shootout. We escaped. Carlisle 0-0p Sunderland.

Also, guess who actually came through for us?

I know which LA club I’ll be cheering for from now on. Also, look at the fan reaction. I got 8.5m out of two players that barely left the bench and cost us nothing to sign. I’m a genius, you idiots!

The club are only allowing me 70% of sales back into the transfer budget, which is odd given we have 39m in the bank, but that’s enough for me to get a reinforcement or two. You’ll have to wait until the next update for those.

Until next time, footy nerds.

Update: the next part is available here.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 3, Summer Transfer Window

Welcome back, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

In addition to sending the scouts around the world, I’m doing some house cleaning amongst the coaching staff, including taking the course for my Continental Pro License.

This will increase my personal coaching stats by a few points, which will in turn help us with training up our upcoming generation of wonderkids.
With a number of staff contracts coming to an end, I’ve hired a new Director of Football and a new Head of Youth Development. Both new guys have better stats for the jobs and better personalities.

This chap may not be Pep Guardiola, but he’s a Model Professional and he likes to play with the same style and formation I do, which makes him perfect for finding youth players for us.

I’ve also hired some more scouts to fill our quota, and I’ll replace the outgoing (rubbish) staff.

The market has been tough. Even guys that are out of jobs barely want to come play for us. I’ve managed to sell Jamie Allen for 1.4m rising to 1.7, which feels like highway robbery.  Various contracts expired and a few youth players left. Nothing special.

Incomings have been harder. I’ve made so many offers only for guys to go to other clubs on lesser wages. I’m probably batting .300, which is great in baseball, but sucks when you’re trying to rebuild a football team on a budget. (Fabio Paratici is laughing at me in his espresso right now.)

I’m trying to balance cheap purchases with room to grow and players that will be able to provide us immediate support to stay in the Premier League. I probably should focus on the latter, but there’s a reason I refer to this game as a youth exploitation simulator, and it’s that I love finding young players and moulding them into world beaters. (News has just come out that FM will be adding women’s leagues to a future version. That’s awesome, and I’m totally in for it. I will also have to stop using the tacky “youth exploitation simulator” description of the game because yiiikes.)

Here’s the new crop that will either keep us in the division or position us for long-term success. Lee Farrell is a Scottish wonderkid who looks like he’ll be a star in 2 seasons (and is capable of playing immediately.) He’s only 16 and he’s able to play today, though, so the 17.5m (spread over three seasons) is steep, but not that steep. I’m pretty sure I can flip him for a profit in two years, if necessary. He’ll rotate with MAX POWER at central midfield, much like Jamie Allen did last season, but hopefully with more minutes.

In retrospect, in the cold light of the morning, I shouldn’t have committed so much money to a kid who is still raw. It’s still a good long-term buy, but I really should have saved the funds for strengthening us for this campaign.

Finley Burns has joined us from Man City for 300k. I wasn’t planning to sign him, but he turned up on my scouting feed as available for what seemed like a bargain price.

That does not look like a bargain player to me. I think we just robbed Txiki Begiristain. Look at that tackling! That jumping! Yes, he’s slow, but he’s 6’6″, has good mentals, and generally solid stats for a ball playing defender.
He compares well to Jordan Willis, who he his battling for 3rd choice centerback.

If he develops physically at all, he’ll be amazing.

I actually went for Billy Koumetio at the same time as Finley Burns thinking that I’d be lucky to get one. That was 100% correct.

They compare reasonably well, though Koumetio is more physically developed.

But I didn’t get him, and Finley cost so little that I hardly care.

I mentioned Anthony Ralston in the last installment. I signed him last January on a free, and he’s arrived to the club this summer.  He provides us an option on the right along with the ever-reliable Neco Williams. Not quite the quality I want for the Premier League, but he’s on low wages and a three year contract, so I’m actually pleased with myself. If he can develop a little more, he can be a good squad player for us. Otherwise: profit.

On the other side of the defense, I’ve brought in Sofiane Alakouch for 3.1m rising to 4.1m from Nimes. He’s nominally right-footed, but his left is nearly as good, and he’s capable of playing on either side. I really needed a better left back, and I really appreciate his versatility.

Grady Diangana was not in my plans, but he was transfer listed by West Brom, and our first match of the season showed me that we needed more quality if we were going to survive, so I opened the chequebook.

Pros: he’s relatively young, at only 24. He has good pace, acceleration, dribbling, and crossing. He has plenty of room to improve and a personality that means he might even do it with some playing time.Con: He cost me 6.5m and he’s on 25k a week wages

But look at that potential ability! He’ll hopefully take most of Lyndon Gooch’s minutes, and Gooch will be sold in the winter.

Emi Martinez (no, not that Emi Martinez) is arriving in December when his current contract ends. He was free, and he’ll add some quality to our midfield alongside Moder and Dobson.

I was a little on the fence, but then I compared him to Jakub Moder, who had been excellent for us.

He’s pretty similar, one year younger, and still has room to grow. This is probably not good news for George Dobson, but he has half a season to convince me that he should keep playing.

Arnaut Danjuma was another, somewhat expensive attacking addition at 6.5m rising to 7.5m. He’s quick and capable, and he gives us a good option coming in from the left that I hope is as good as Adam Idah was last season. He wasn’t my first choice, but my first choice shunned us for Burnley. (Hold that thought.)

Speaking of Adam Idah, I’ve run into something weird. These are the loan rule for the Premier League.

At the point I realized they were a concern, I had Neco Williams (DR), Jakub Moder (CM), Dennis Cirkin (DL), and Adam Idah (AML/ST). According to the rules, I’m only allowed to have two of the four. I immediately canceled Idah’s loan; he was a good player, but I already had my sights on Danjuma. I’ve kept everyone else around to see what happened. So far, nothing. We’ve just finished our first Premier League match and it involved Williams, Moder, and Cirkin. So maybe the fact that all these loans were extended last spring when we were in the Championship has skirted the Premier League rule? 

In addition to the guys above that will contribute this season, I’ve been scouring the world for wonderkids. My method is one I’ve seen on various blogs, but it boils down to this:

  1. Go to your scouting center and create two shortlists. I use “Youth Intake” and “Promising Youth Intake”
  2. Click the Globe icon in the top right of the game.
  3. Choose World
  4. Choose Transfers
  5. Go to the combo box that says “Transfers” and change it to “Youth Intake”
  6. Go through this list and add the players to your “Youth Intake” shortlist in groups of 100 or so at a time. I do this in early December and late May, usually.
  7. Go back to your Scouting centre and go to your Shortlist tab
  8. Select the Youth Intake shortlist from the combo box on the upper right
  9. Create a filter to sort out the dross. I like to do Decisions 8, Determination 12, Anticipation 8, Acceleration 9, Stamina 8. Does that mean I miss out on some possible players? Probably. It also means I sort out 95% of the kids with zero chance of ever making my team. If you have hundreds of kids left at this point, maybe refine your criteria a little more. I keep it somewhat generic so I’m finding kids with wonderkid potential in all outfield positions.
  10. Copy the players from this list to the “Promising Youth Intake” list
  11. Have your scouts start scouting all these players
  12. Delete the dross from the “Youth Intake” list so it’s clear for next time

If you have a decent number of scouts, you’ll get through the promising kids within a few weeks. From there you can start looking for ones with expiring contracts, with release clauses, or where you can poach them for compensation money.
I have lined up a few kids already. One key Premier League change post-Brexit is that you can only bring in 6 foreign kids per year, so you’ll have to balance punts with players that can play immediately.  (That’s for that, Boris.)

Karel Hysky is going to cost me 46k from Sparta Prague, and he’s due to join in about 18 months. I’m not blown away by him, but he has good potential and he cost about as much as a pint and a packet of crisps in London.

Michal Bednar is our second Czech, and poor Sparta Prague are really hating me right now. He’ll cost us a whopping 52k. His ceiling is a little lower, but these things shift over time. For the price, I figured why not. He joins next summer.

Filip Beck is one of two Danes coming from FC Kobenhavn. His personality is Fickle, which is not great, at all, but if I can get him a work permit I’ll try to put him in a group with some older, more professional players. He cost nothing, but he’s also failed his work permit. He’s scheduled to join next summer, and I’m hopeful he gets some Denmark youth team minutes between now and then. If not, I’ll try to loan him to someone on the continent.

His mate Lars will be joining with him, hopefully, work permit Gods willing. He looks reasonably promising, and he also cost nothing. The Director of Football in Copenhagen is either asleep on the job or knows something I don’t.
I do appreciate that Lars has a Professional personality. The 15 pace and 15 acceleration at only 16 years old gives me real hope he is a starter for us in a few seasons.

Obren Cikic is a Serbian set to join next summer, and he looks like he could start in the Championship right now. He’s not very fast, but he’s already pretty good across the board. He can play DM and MC, and he has a tackling of 14, so he’ll probably end up as a midfield destroyer. He’s going to cost at least 650k, and I think that may go up if he turns out to be great. I hope it does.

Enric will be joining us next summer, and I’m hoping that by then he’ll be good enough to rotate at AMC with Onomah. He cost 5.25m to activate his release clause, and I’m hopeful that’s money well spent. I’d love to poach a Barcelona player who will truly make us Barcelona of the North. Shoot, in five or six seasons, they’ll be referring to the Blaugrana as “Sunderland of Catalonia.”

Felipe Augusto is the product of the SPO (aka São Paulo Futebol Clube) academy. With his Professional personality, physical tools, and already high marking, he should develop into a starter in a season or two. He cost me 4m, and he won’t join until next summer, but he looks as if he could be a star in two or three years.

I’ve spent about 10m on future prospect players. If even one of them works out decently, I’ll break even. I’m pretty sure Felipe Augosto, Enric, and Obren Cikric will be not just Premier League players, but ones that I’ll struggle to keep away from the biggest clubs in the country.

I’ve spent about 35 million more on the starters, half of which was 16-year-old Lee Farrell. That adds up to 45m of the 35m budget I was given. Thank goodness for spreading transfer fees over time.

If you’re thinking this has a trolley dash feel to it, then you’re not wrong. I wasn’t trying to do any particular squad building; I was trying to get the best players I could with the money I had. (I’m seriously hoping I don’t regret the Lee Farrell deal!)

There’s a million quid left in the transfer budget, and I’ve committed 315k of my 643k budget. That will rise to 367k next season, though I may sell a player or two between now and then to clear dead weight and raise funds. Maybe I can get LAFC to come back in for Bailey Wright? (I wish.)

Remember me telling you to hold the thought on the Burnley match? We went to Burnley and got pummeled for three goals with only one very late set piece goal in response. I was using the same tactic that has been successful for us for so long, and I’m thinking I’m going to need to flip to the backup.

This still needs some refinement, but it should give us a stouter defense than the 4231. I didn’t think I’d need it for Burnley. I was wrong.

The Burnley match spurred some of the spending above. Diangana and Burns both came in to help out the attack and defense, respectively. Diangana will help from day 1. Burns will be my first rotation option on defense.

The Championship is brutal for how long the campaign is, but you at least run into some rubbish teams along the way. Luton and Birmingham and QPR, to name a few that we trounced last season. Teams that don’t have the resources and players to really challenge for the top of the table. The Premier League has weaker teams, and we’re one of them. Burnley and Fulham have already handled us with ease. We took three points off Sheffield at home, and then we went to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

A trip to the Marcelo Bielsa-coached Spurs went about as you’d expect.  Their strikers alone make more money per week than our entire squad. The new tactic hardly slowed their attackers. They smashed us into pieces, fed those pieces into a blender, and poured the blended pieces into a wood chipper. We lost 4-nil. Spurs finished 4th last season, so this current iteration isn’t exactly Spursy.

Our last match before the transfer window closed was Liverpool at the Stadium of Light. I stuck with the same counter-attacking 433 that failed us against Spurs. It also failed us against Liverpool. We lost 3-nil this time, but the xG was moderately positive with Liverpool 1 – 0.5 Sunderland. I don’t think I need to panic yet. 

Burnley away didn’t really bother me. Sheffield at home we actually won. Fulham stung, though. Yes, it was away, but we needed points there. Spurs and Liverpool: whatever. They are so, so much better than us it hardly matters.

I’m really stuck between two minds. The 433 is holding xG down. Spurs scored 4 with 1.7 xG. Liverpool scored 3 with 1.04, which was less than Fulham’s 1.56 (two goals conceded). We’ve barely had anything going the other direction, though. Do I ease up a few roles to get more attacking or tighten down to try to nick a goal on a set piece?

At the end of August, and the end of the transfer window, we are not looking great. There’s plenty of football to be played, but usually you expect the player-managed clubs to do better than the computer-managed clubs at this point.
See you in January, footy nerds. Hopefully, I still have a job by then.

Update: the next installment is here.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 2, Part 2

Welcome back, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

January didn’t start well. Not just LAFC reneging on their contract for Wright, but our first FA Cup match went horribly.

We lost, obviously, and the scoreline reflects the match more than the xG, which was inflated by the two penalties. Derby were clinical. We were shite. The board was upset with the loss, but it did let us focus 100% on the league. That’s okay, I’m telling myself. The league is more important. Our owner will inject more cash; we don’t need that cup money. I hope.

We scraped a 1-0 win against Hull and then went to Brentford. Going down a goal on 17 minutes to a clinical Sergi Canos finish didn’t worry me. Losing Troy Parrott on 27 minutes to a red card for a two-footed lunge from behind did, in fact, worry me. There was a time, back in October, when we were Barcelona of the north. When we would expect to strangle a match and deprive even Brentford of the possession they needed to harm us. That time is long behind us, but Jamie Allen came through with a banger in the 50th minute to give us hope. Lyndon Gooch had a tidy finish on 60 minutes to give us belief. I immediately shut up shop by switching to a Defensive mentality and dialing Time Wasting to 11. I wish I could tell you that it worked. It did not. We gave up another goal on 77 minutes to make it 2-2, and Bryan Mbuemo scored at 90+6 to win it for Brentford. It might have been gutting if it hadn’t been so damned expected. 

There was another time, not so many years ago, that Brentford 3-2 Sunderland would have been a massive upset. That time has also passed. We came into this match the underdogs, we did ourselves credit taking the lead while being down a man most of the match, but we lost as expected. The good news was that we were still firmly in the playoff picture and only five points out of first place. Not gonna lie, though, I’m disappointed we couldn’t hold on for the three points after having the lead after an hour.

I spent the rest of January working the scouts overtime. McKay left as planned (jerk cost me 2.5m by taking Wright’s DP slot and I’m still salty about it), and I sold Carl Winchester to QPR for 230k.

I’ve agreed a deal for Anthony Ralston at the end of his current contract to come play right back. Ben Woodburn is back from Liverpool (I guess Klopp didn’t hold that grudge), not because I expect him to be that good, but because his contract expires in June and I thought I’d keep him around to see if he’s worth signing on a free. I don’t know; it sounded like a good idea at the time, okay. 

The big signing, though, was Dan N’Lundulu from Southampton. He can play anywhere across the attacking band or at striker, though he’s probably best up top given his poor passing. With Parrott injured, he’ll start at striker and then slide out to the right in a few weeks. He came in for 1.8m, which makes me even more annoyed about missing out on the Wright money. Remember, folks, never sell more than one player to the same MLS club in a given window.

We rumbled onward through February, beating the teams we should beat and losing to the ones that are, if I’m being honest, better than us. We went to Sheffield, played them about even, and lost 0-2. Much like Brighton and Brentford, Sheffield are superior across the board. So is half the league. 

If you’re not familiar with FM21, know that Youssoufa Moukoko is the wonderkid in this version. He’s 15 when the game starts, and he never signs an extension at Dortmund, so if you’re a good side, you can sign him on a free in 2022. He was amazing for us in my Verona save, and I’m still not sure why he agreed to the contract I offered him. (Money and playing time, in equal parts.) In this Sunderland save, this happened:

As if Chelsea need the help. It’s depressing. And yes, I did try to sign him multiple times, but he had no interest in us. He’ll leave Chelsea for Real Madrid in three seasons for 200m, mark my words.

I’ve switched to using the analyst view of the match to review whether my tactic is still working. Here’s a screenshot of us in possession.

Kean Bryan, in yellow, has the ball. Further upfield the central midfielders are set up in a triangle of options. Dobson at DLP is in green, providing a short option. Allen in red is positioned to cover space and open a triangle with Pritchard, in pink, further forward. N’Lundulu, in orange, is waiting on the shoulder of the last defender. I like that we have spacing to the bottom of the image with the fullback and winger wide. I also like how compact we are from defense to striker.

The centerbacks play back and forth amongst themselves for a few passes until Jimmy Dunne pings a ball over the top to a streaking N’Lundulu, who finishes into the corner.

Here’s another, more typical (i.e. non-goal-scoring) passage.

Bryan works the ball wide left to the wingback, Hume (purple) who drives forward into a position to cross. O’Nien is wide on the right, providing width from his fullback position.

Hume crosses low into the mass of Sunderland players crashing into the box, finding our winger Gooch, in green as O’Nien, at right-back, closes in from outside.

Gooch lays off to his right to O’Nien who, with a clear shot at goal, misfires wide left and directly into a defender. We’ve worked the ball well down the flank made a low cross into the box, and turned it into a decent shooting opportunity. A better player would have put that on target.

We did that while allowing three shots with only one on target, and none very threatening. The tactic is working well, even if January results don’t show it.

I know it’s only February, but I’ve already extended loan deals for Idah, Neco Williams, and Cirkin for next season. Worst case is that I terminate them in the summer, but I thought I’d get them locked in now while the costs would be low. I’m paying 11k a month for Neco in fees, plus his  8k salary; the others are fee-less and on similar wages.

This ensures my backline is set and that I have a rotation striker / winger alongside N’Lundulu. I have not extended Parrott. Dude had a blazing start to the season, but unless he finds form again, he’ll go back to Spurs and I’ll find someone more consistent.

The lads scraped a nervy 1-0 win to mark the occasion of my 100th match. Thanks, lads. that was also the 5th win a row. I think Barcelona of the north is back on.
We went to West Brom for the next match and repeated the performance with another scrappy 1-0.

We didn’t deserve to win, but we did, anyway. Take that, FM!

Lee Burge has been solid again this season. I’m sure I could find an upgrade, but I don’t actually need to, which is nice. This win sees us move ahead of Brentford into third place on 75 points, even with Watford and only 1 goal behind in differential. We’re 7 back of Sheffield United in first place with 9 matches left in the season. We couldn’t lock in automatic promotion, could we?
This is our familiarity with the 4231 we’ve been using all season.

With Woodburn and N’Lundulu in the side, our positional familiarity is a little below perfect. If I bring on Gooch and Parrot, it ticks up a little further. What I don’t understand is how MAX POWER is not intimately familiar with this formation and his position in it.

He’s played the exact same role for nearly two seasons, to the point that he has a good relationship with Jakub Moder.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We’re doing well, and the tactic is working.

Ross Stewart is little more than a backup at this point, but apparently Patrick Jackman, a regen winger/striker is gunning for his minutes and damned aggressive about it. Dang, dude. Go easy on the old man.

Jackman himself is moderately promising. The 4.5 star potential is Premier League quality, though it’s far from certain he’ll ever realize his potential. He did just score 4 goals and get a 10.0 rating in an under-23s match, though.

We actually have a few youngsters (ignore the loan players) with decent potential. None that are sure things and ready for the first team, but some that I can see getting some loans and either being squad players or sold for a decent amount in the future.

After the West Brom match we went to Nottingham and administered a whuppin’. After going down a goal, we turned on the style and hit them for four in a row. The win–and the extra goal differential–took us ahead of Watford to second with us both on 78 points and only 4 behind Sheffield. That was our seventh win on the bounce. We have eight matches to go.

Another gritty 1-0 win at home, this time against Stoke, coupled with a Sheffield loss tightened things further, leaving us only one point off the top. Seven matches to go.

A trip to Preston presented little difficulty. Adam Idah scored his 9th goal of the season just before halftime, which was all we needed to win and secure a place in the playoffs. Oh, and it moved us ahead of Sheffield by 2 points, though Watford are 3 back with a game in hand. Six matches to go, and anything could happen.
The March international window arrived, giving us a welcome break for two weeks. During the window, our youth intake came in.

We have a few decent-looking prospects, but they’re at least 3 or 4 years from any meaningful contribution to the first team. We should be a Premier League team by then, so these star ratings will surely drop, potentially to the point that even if they reach their potential they won’t be good enough. We should be so lucky.
During the break Watford made up their game in hand, winning 1-0 over Brentford. We stayed top, barely. Even on 84 points and +34 goal differential, ahead only because we’ve scored more goals.

Troy Parrott had the hottest start I can recall seeing, followed by the worst possible rest of the season. He caught another injury that will see him miss the remainder of the campaign. I hardly know what to say at this point. Sorry, Spurs supporters. I really did try to help your boy succeed.

At the end of the international break, we made a trip to Wales that saw Jamie Allen come back into the starting lineup alongside Jakub Moder. Coincidentally, I also activated the club’s extension on his contract to keep it from expiring at the end of June. He combined well with Dan N’Lundulu, who has been the stuff of dreams, to help us to a 4-2 victory over Swansea and maintain our position at the top, even with Watford on 87 points and 4 ahead of Sheffield in 3rd. Five matches to go.

Looking at the run-in, anything could happen. We have Derby (7th), Bournemouth (15th), Watford (2nd), Brighton (10th), and Birmingham (14th). Watford is the obvious must-win, but Brighton smashed us 0-3 the last time we faced them. We drew Derby, edged Bournemouth 1-0, and pasted Birmingham 5-1.
Derby came to visit. They left disappointed. Two-nil to the Black Cats with N’Lundulu scoring another. We stayed top and put a two-point separation between us and Watford. We’re now 7 ahead of 3rd place Sheffield. Four matches to go.

With him being such a key part of the team, I’ve gone back to Brighton about extending Jakub Moder for another season. They originally wanted to keep him around for their first team, but suggested that an improved offer could change their minds.

Spoiler: I didn’t improve anything. I clicked “Make Offer” and left it to them. The fools accepted.

Bournemouth rolled into town in some kind of teal kit that looked more like saltwater taffy than a proper football shirt. We should have punished them for the effrontery to football sensibility, but Lyndon Gooch went in two-footed on 16 minutes and got sent off. We’ve really had a rash of red cards this season. Somehow, a few minutes later, we drew a penalty and MAX POWER slotted it home. Exactly one minute after that, Bournemouth broke upfield and Taiwo Awoniyi bundled home after a scrum in our six-yard box. So. Frustrating. The draw held less than five minutes before  Awoniyi skinned my entire defense to score his second. We shipped 3 more and came out of the match with zero points and a dent in our goal differential. Not ideal with only four matches to go. Of all the matches left, this is the one I expected to be the easiest, and it marks the end of a streak of 11 consecutive wins.

The loss dropped us to second, one point behind Watford, who we play next. Get ready for ~drama~

One of the things I find interesting about this save is our success as a team. We are objectively a good team. The table, particularly at this point in the season, doesn’t lie. When I look at scouting reports, I see so many players from other Championship sides that would be stars for us, but I can’t remotely afford them. The thing is, we don’t have any stellar individual players. Some good allrounders and some kids on loan that will one day be excellent, but even if everyone were on my books, I don’t think any of them would be leaving for 15m in the summer based on their current ability. (Neco and Jakub might, but that’s more potential than where they are currently.) We’re doing as well as we are on the basis of the collective. Or as Doc Rivers would have said, the ubuntu.

Nah, screw that.

I could talk about being a point from the Premier League. I could talk about the current standings. GET YOUR REVENGE, LADS!

Twenty seconds into the match and MAX POWER goes in on a Hornet and I have to hold my breath. We’ve had a rash of red cards in the last few months, so one more wouldn’t be a shock. He gets away with a yellow. And breathe. We work the ball well, getting the first shot and putting it on target, but it’s an easy save from an Adam Idah header. Hume gets the ball on the left, plays it centrally to Onomah, who lays off for N’Lundulu on the edge of the area. Dan one-touches it to Ben Woodburn, who one-touches it into the net. Black Cats 1-0 Hornets on 9 minutes. Game. On.

We’re able to play the match we want. Lots of short passing, lots of overlaps, lots of good touches in the area for us. Watford, to their credit, don’t let us dominate possession as much as usual, but it still takes them 28 minutes to get their first shot. Burge gathers easily. We go into halftime at 1-0 with 58% possession and having only given up 2 shots worth a paltry .09 xG. We’ve only put 3 shots on target ourselves, but I can’t really complain.

I make the first change just before the hour. MAX POWER is on a yellow and not playing terribly well, so he gets hooked for Jamie Allen, who immediately combines well with Onomah for a shot that really should have put us up 2-0 but goes agonizingly wide of the left upright. A few minutes later Malang Sarr drives into the right channel, but Kean Bryan is with him every step of the way and forces him into a bad angle that Burge shovels out for a corner. My heart was in my throat for a second. We struggle to get anything going until the 72nd minute when N’Lundulu is put through one on one with Dahlberg, but he can’t get the ball around the keeper. He really should have scored.

Things settle for about 10 minutes until Watford get a break down our right. Neco Williams is caught forward, and Jimmy Dunne has to close down a winger with far more pace. He does well enough, stalling for the team to recover, but Watford slide the ball through to Troy Deeney, one on one with Burge who saves acrobatically and preserves our lead. Again, heart in throat. I tell the lads to drop to a more defensive shape and waste as much time as they can get away with.

They do. Black Cats 1 – 0 Hornets.

WE’RE GOING TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE!

We’re also 2 points ahead of Watford with two matches to play. We’re two goals behind them in goal differential so we can’t really afford a draw, either.
In the runup to the Brighton match, Adam Idah twisted his knee, taking him out for 4 to 7 days. Both Cirkin and Williams are in need of a rest, but neither are going to get one. Two more matches, lads. You can rest all summer.

Brighton did not put up the same fight as last time when they beat us 0-3. This time N’Lundulu scored a brace, and I gave a debut to one of our academy players, Brad Laws. (Not that same lad that smashed up Ross Stewart.) We strolled to a 2-0 win. Elsewhere, this happened:

Which means…

We won the league! I honestly didn’t think it was possible. It shouldn’t have been possible. We were about the 8th best team in the division, and then only with some luck. That first six weeks with Troy Parrott on absolute fire gave me hope, but when he went cold and we were lucky to scrape draws in the late autumn, I would have been happy with making the playoffs. N’Lundulu in January didn’t just save our season, he worked a miracle.

With the league settled, the board have sent me a note.

The summer is gonna be busy. We only have 191k committed spending next season, and not many players are getting a wage boost with the promotion. Ever the (secret) optimist, I kept the 30% wage escalator for promotion out of most of the contracts I’ve issued.

The bad news is that I’ve had our scouting package set to the Football League, i.e. League Two, League One, and the Championship. Our scouts have little idea what’s happening in the Premier League, so the players they’re bringing me are generally less skilled than we want.

For our final, meaningless match against Birmingham, I sent out a lineup with some promising kids, some fringe players, and MAX POWER. Brad Laws, in his second-ever senior match, scored a fine goal. It wasn’t enough for us to actually win, but it was enough for a draw, and that will do just fine.

We’ve done back-to-back promotions, including two league titles and the Pizza Cup. It’s been brilliant. The stuff of dreams, and the best kind of Football Manager.
Here are a few stats for you.

We brought in ten players. Woodburn was easily the worst of the lot, and I’ll let him leave at the end of the season. Jimmy Dunne had the best average rating, but N’Lundulu was right there with him. They were both essential.

Our team of the season was exactly as I would have picked it. We really settled on a first 11 around February, with minor rotation for freshness and injury. I’m surprised to see Gooch rated as highly as he is, but he kicked on well.

With the season over, we’ve had our scouting budget upgraded. I’ve gone for the top package. South American wonderkids, here we come.

Kyril, ever the bro, has dipped his hand in his pocket again.

But for some reason, and I think this is because I asked in May rather than June when the game treats the season as actually finished, he rejected my request to upgrade the training facilities.

Not really a surprise, but I’ll put it on the mantle, anyway.

Slightly more of a surprise, and I’m happy to have them all under contract for next season.

We are to the end of the 2021/2022 season. Sheffield United won the promotion playoff. The next step is the transfer window, which is going to take ages, and I do need to get some writing done this week.

I reckon that next season will see us finish lower mid-table. I know I’ve sandbagged a bit on my last two predictions, but A) I was honestly shocked we won the Championship, and B) there is a zero percent chance we win the Premier League. We might, if we are stupendously lucky in the transfer market, challenge for a Europa League place. I’d give us about a 25% of being relegated, 50% chance of being lower mid-table, 20% of being 10th or above, and 5% of 6th or above.
I’ll leave things here for now. See you next time, footy nerds.

Update: the next installment is available here.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 2, Part 1

Welcome back, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

With the season starting in July, we had already played a month at the end of the last update. I’ve kept going from there, and at the end of September things were looking very good, indeed.

So good, in fact, that the club offered me a four year contract extension. Given that this is “Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked,” I felt compelled to accept it.

The only real negative in the opening two months was the Carabao cup penalty loss to lowly Blackpool. I’m not exactly devastated that we went out. The extra focus on the league will be nice, and if we can make a run in the FA Cup, I’ll call it a wash. We aren’t winning either cup, and my focus is truly on the league.

The opening two months have given me a better idea of who is and is not in my plans for the January transfer window. As the cliche goes, if you’re standing still you’re falling behind. We need to improve a position or two if we want to challenge for back to back promotions. You can see the ratings for the last 5 games and the overall ratings for the season so far. It’s unusual to have so many players with 7+, but given our win record, not too surprising. The concern for me is the players that are subpar even when we’re doing so well overall. 

Gooch has been underwhelming, and he’s my best right winger. I need to find an upgrade stat. His contract expires in the summer, so I’ll try to move him for some kind of fee. O’Brien is similar. Nowhere near good enough compared to the rest of the squad and has an expiring contract. I’d prefer to get paid for him to leave, but the worst case is we let him go on a free in the summer. Ross Stewart hasn’t been terrible, but he’s going to score 30 goals in the Championship like he did in League One. 

The problem is going to be replacements. I’m still in bargain shopping mode, and unless I add a sixth loan, I don’t see how I’m going to find a good replacement. We have 2 million quid in the transfer kitty and 15 million in the bank, but we’re losing over a million a month.

We hummed along in October and November, dropping points here and there, but continuing to stay at or near the top of the league. Wright and Willis both came to me complaining about playing time, and I agreed to give them starts. Wright came back to tell me he was happy with his playing time, and then a couple weeks later this happened:

Which I honestly didn’t see coming. His value was listed as 1.7m, so I offered him around for 2.5m, which was clearly not enough because LAFC (from MLS) instantly offered 2.5m with no room for negotiation.

I feel as if I am real life Brentford, i.e. taking decent players, helping them succeed, and selling them for inflated prices by being near the top of the division. If I can move some more of my dead weight in January, I’ll be a happy manager. If nothing else, I’ll feel good about spending a couple million on an upgraded winger.
November saw our first long-term injury with Neco Williams going down for 6-7 weeks with a knee injury.

I have O’Nien to cover for him, and Wright–while he’s still here–can help as well. We’ll be fine. I hope.

Our second long-term injury landed a week later.

This one is less of a concern. O’Brien was a good rotation option last season, but he’s only played 367 minutes so far this season, and nearly all of those were from the bench. Again, we’ll be fine. (An aside: when playing FM, the players don’t feel real. They honestly don’t feel real when watching football on the television, either. Somewhere out there is a real Aiden O’Brien, and maybe he has a Google alert on his name and sees this. Mental health is a real thing, and I feel bad treating players–even virtual players–as if they are purely commodities. Aiden, if you’re reading, it’s not you that’s subpar. It’s the footy nerds rating your abilities. You’ve been a good player for us, and I hope you don’t take it personally when we can’t re-sign you this summer.)

And then the hammer fell. Parrott went down for two months. To be honest, his form had faltered badly, so it wasn’t like we were bereft, but the loss of all three players stung.

You can see it in our results, too.

Point after dropped point, and those draws were not matches we dominated. They were largely matches where we scraped a goal near the end to claw back a point. The only really bad loss was the one to Brighton, but if you look at the quality across Brighton’s 11 and ours, the scoreline isn’t unfair. (Even with a fully healthy squad.)

The Championship season is a long, brutal slog. Forty-six games with two cup competitions thrown in. We may have limped for a while, but we did finally break out of our funk with a 5-1 thrashing of Birmingham, and we finished the month of December in a very credible position.

The board are delighted, of course. I would be, too, if we hadn’t spent a while in first place. With everyone fit and Parrott with a modicum of form, we could finish in the automatic promotion places. As it is, I’m expecting us to end up in the playoffs.

Finances aren’t great, but we have 2.6m coming from Wright (2.5m) and McKay (150k) leaving for LAFC.

I’ll spend it if I find the right players, but pickings look slim. I’d like to find guys that are good enough to play right now and still have room to improve, and that’s hard when you’re already near the top of the Championship.
And no sooner do I type the words, than this happens.

LAFC, you bastards! You absolute shitgibbons.  We had a contract! Your lack of Designated Player spots is your own problem. Give me my money. Naturally, no one else was interested in him either, and now he’s gone and withdrawn his transfer request.

We will deal with the transfer window in the next update, but know this: I. Am. Fuming. 

Update: the Championship run-in is now posted here.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 2, Preseason

Welcome back, footy nerds. You can read about the end of the 2020/2021 season here. This post will cover the transfers and training in the 2021/2022 transfer window.

Last season ended and work started the following morning, still hungover. We had too many players that weren’t the level needed to survive in the Championship. There was a culling.

Some of these guys left earlier in 2020/2021, but I moved on Wyke and Flanagan as quickly as I could when the 2021 summer transfer window opened.

More people left as the game ticked over to the new season. The guys leaving on a free were mostly youth prospects that weren’t going to make the first team or be good enough to have much value in the future. A few weeks later I noticed that the board is upset about letting those guys leave on a free, which is annoying. Their contracts were about to expire. Maybe I could have included a sell on clause, but that was too much effort for what might have totaled 100k in two or three years. The biggest loss was probably Xhemajli, but I somehow managed to get 500k out of him, and he was realistically going to be 5th choice.

By extending Neco Williams loan at the end of the 2020/2021 season, we looked like this as a core going into the transfer window:

My goal was to replace a few of the starters with upgrades. The current squad was okay, but I didn’t expect to have many of them on the books in two seasons, so I wanted to make them rotation options this season and either release them on frees or sell them in twelve months’ time. The most critical need was depth at left back. Carl Winchester is not the level I want in midfield and certainly not the level I want at left back.

I’ve resigned Burge just as his contract was about to end. He’s… fine. Good enough for now, and on low enough wages that I can sell him easily in January if I find someone else better. (Which feels mercenary as hell to say, but we’ve got a team to run here.)

My top centerbacks last season were Wright and Willis, so I’ve extended Willis to 2024 to keep him from leaving on a free. I expect he’ll be a good rotation option if I can find an upgrade.

Further forward, I think MAX POWER and Jamie Allen are okay. They can do a job at CM. O’Nien is versatile enough to play both DR and DM. Two or three versatile players are the key to squad management, so I’m happy to keep him around. George Dobson was on loan last season, and he’s back and looking like he can play the DLP role tolerably well.

He’s not as technically good as I’d like, but his mentals are solid, and he will be a good rotation option.

It was the attacking band really that really worried me. Aiden O’Brien did well last season, but I think we can surely find an upgrade. Gooch, though a fellow Yank, is similar. Probably good enough, but I’d take an upgrade if I can find one.

Ross Stewart, at striker, had better numbers than his character sheet would suggest. You can’t argue with 30 goals, but you can absolutely argue with 11 Acceleration, 12 Pace, 10 Anticipation, and 13 Finishing.

My first port of call was free transfers. Guys who would be upgrades on my current players while having resale value in a season or two.

Kean Bryan has come in on a free and immediately is valued at 2.4m.

He’s a pretty good allrounder who can start at CD-L or DL. Importantly, he has a bit of acceleration to enable him to play our high defensive line, and enough passing that he won’t be a liability in playing out of the back. I’d prefer a bit more jumping reach and bit better defensive stats, but he was free.

Jimmy Dunne brings more defensive solidity to center back and will be fighting with Wright and Willis for a starting position. His valuation seems low, and I hope to sell him for for more at the end of the season.

Jakub Moder came in on loan from Brighton and immediately slotted into the DLP position as the starter ahead of George Dobson. I expect Dobson to get plenty of minutes, but Moder was a clear upgrade.

Alex Pritchard was another free, and he’ll slot into our AMC slot vacated by Ben Woodburn. He’s another good allrounder with nothing special that jumps out and not much room for improvement, but if he can hold down the center of the pitch and keep the ball moving, I’ll be happy.

Josh Onomah is a favorite pickup of mine. He starts as a quality Championship player and he can grow into a decent Premier League player. He was my big purchase of the window, costing me 1.9m from Fulham. He’s another pretty good allrounder, and he can play effectively across the attacking band or in central midfield.

All the way in the front, I picked up two loan strikers.

Idah brings solid pace and acceleration, along with the ability to play on the left and cut inside. His anticipation and finishing are both good, and I’m hoping he can combine well with his Spurs teammate on the overlap and his other Spurs teammate further forward.

Many a Spurs supporter is looking in real life toward Troy Parrot with the hope that he’ll be the next Harry Kane. He is well on his way in FM. Solid all around with excellent heading. Would I have preferred the real Harry Kane? Will I take discount Harry Kane to help me stay in the Championship? Also, yes.  Spoiler alert: I’ve played to the end of the transfer window already, and Spurs supporters in my alternate universe will have nothing to complain about. To wit: his valuation at the end of August had gone from the 2.2m above to 7.5m.

At the end of August, my starting 11 and my tactic going into the season looks pretty solid.

I’ve tweaked things tactically a little. Idah is now playing as inside forward to take advantage of his better finishing and worse crossing. Cirkin is playing as a fullback rather than a wingback on the theory that we could use a little more defensive solidity.

Here’s another look at early season training. We’re going for primarily physical and tactical training in the opening weeks and adding in plenty of winnable friendlies to help build morale.

The league campaign starts on 31 July, so August will see a blend of tactical and technical training, and September onward will be largely technical.

It’s currently the end of August in the save, so I’ll pause the writeup here, play forward over the coming days, and see where we get by January.

Update: Season 2, Part 2 is available here.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 1, Part 2

Welcome back to Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked. Part 1 is available here if you’re just joining the party.

One tiny lesson I’ve learned over the years is that no one appreciates a prophet in their own time. If you’re predicting doom and you’re wrong, you’re an idiot. If you’re predicting doom and you’re right, you’re an asshole. Guess what happened to Sunderland’s beating heart?

Six weeks injured, that’s what. With MAX POWER on the sidelines, we had to press forward as best we could. To be honest and kind of spoil things, it worked out better than I expected. So I guess I’m only half a prophet: both wrong and an asshole, apparently.

The January transfer window was fairly drab. I brought in one loan and let a few fringe players leave. Conor McLaughlin left for 20k to Shrewsbury, Brandon Taylor for 10.5k to Wigan, Grant Leadbitter on a free (but I’m paying 5k a week in wages (ugh)) to Hull, and Remi Mathews for 20k to Derby. I would have gladly sold McGeady at this point, if only to get his wages off the books, but I couldn’t find anyone to take him.

As the end of the transfer window neared, Jake Vokins went down injured. With us paying his wages and him about to miss two months, I made the call to terminate his loan and get someone else in. I was successful in getting Neco Williams from Liverpool, and the sharp-eyed among you may immediately see the issue. Vokins was one of our two left backs. Williams plays right back. I thought I was going to get another loan in to cover the left, but it didn’t work out, and I was stuck playing the second half of the season with Denver Hume starting and Carl Winchester giving him rest whenever we could afford it. Not ideal.

January and February weren’t great. With Power injured I shuffled my midfield and gave Carl Winchester more minutes to mixed results. 

Along the way, we had one of the most bananas shootouts I’ve ever seen. An even dozen spot kicks for each side, ending when the original takers came up for their second kicks and Lewis-Potter faltered while Sunderland’s own Chris Maguire proved himself to be a steely-eyed missile man.

Neco Williams, at least, was stellar, with an average rating of 7.09 across the season. Unfortunately, I agreed to play him as a wingback, which I interpreted to mean “right back in the wingback role” but Jurgen Klopp interpreted to mean “playing in the wingback position in a back three.”

Dude chased me about it twice! Look, I don’t have beef with Klopp, but the man isn’t going to dictate my entire formation. I more or less told him to sod off, figuring I’d get my revenge in a couple seasons when I saw him in the Premier League. Or that he’d deny me future loans. Which… eek. (Ominous foreshadowing alert: hold this thought.)

We moved on from the spotty January / February form to a run of green so beautiful the Irish would weep. That included making it to the final of the “Papa John’s Trophy,” which was so critical to the Sunderland board that they didn’t even have it in my season objectives.

A trophy? Named after mediocre chain pizza? I mean, I’ll take it, I guess.

Oh, and it even paid a little bit. Not as much as we immediately paid out to the players in bonuses, but better than a cross straight to the jewels.

It also led to this bit of weirdness.

I couldn’t honestly care less about Scowen getting yellow cards in the Pizza Cup, but the discipline policy says that he has to be fined, so he got hit with losing a week’s wages. It feels pretty steep, but he took it just fine. I would have been pissed in his shoes.

The run of green continued. And continued some more. Did I expect to win the league? Yes. Did I actually win the league? Also, yes.

We didn’t just win the league. We won it in style and comfort.

We ended the season with a couple meaningless draws and an equally meaningless loss long after the league was won. Job done.

The thing about this Sunderland squad is that it’s Pretty Good. Not brilliant, but well-balanced. I added a couple loan upgrades, put the players into roles where they could succeed, and they did a job. I know people on the Football Manager Show podcast are down on it, but it’s totally fine for League One.

Ross Stewart scored 30 goals. Max Power–sorry, MAX POWER–had 14 assists (while missing two freaking months). They’re both in the squad from day one.

As we go into the Championship, my goals are what I reckon to be realistic. We’ll probably finish midtable, far enough from the relegation zone that it won’t be a real worry and close enough to the playoffs that my virtual supporters will be simultaneously delighted and frustrated about what might have been.

I’m about to go raid the transfer market, by which I mean bargain shop like it’s Christmas Eve, I have no presents, and Aldi is closing in 10 minutes. We’ll be hunting for free transfers and loans with maybe a cheap buy or two if I can fit it into my budget.

The real worry is the budget. We started the season with about 7.5m in the bank. We ended it with 441k of debt. The board claim that I’ll have a wage budget of 249k (I’m spending 166k at the end of the current season) and a transfer budget of 3.5m. If I can keep the spending down, we might just about break even on the season.

Oh, never mind. Y’all hold on while I go open Kyril’s chequebook…

I’m on holiday this week, England is in the midst of a covid outbreak, and I have lots of writing procrastination to do, so expect more updates ahead of schedule. Until next time, nerds!

Update: The 2021 transfer window is now online.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked

Alright friends, I’ve been listening to The Football Manager Podcast from The Athletic, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring for their latest Football Manager challenge. If you’re not familiar with Football Manager (FM), it’s a youth exploitation role-playing game with some football (soccer) tactics on top. At least, that’s how I play it. The challenge is to start with Sunderland, an English club fallen on hard times, and take them back to glory. If you aren’t familiar with Sunderland and you have even a passing interest in football, go watch the Sunderland ’til I Die documentary. It is Shakespearean tragedy on a football pitch and does a fine job explaining how the club has gotten to where they are today.

I’ve setup my game with only the English leagues, a large database, and myself as manager with the checkboxes ticked for having the appropriate ability to a manage in League One. I am not using attribute masking for this save. I did on my Verona save, and I literally spent more time poring through leagues and teams looking for players than I did in the rest of the game combined. Screw that. With attribute masking off I can filter down the players to a manageable list and save myself a ton of time. I’m justifying this by saying that any modern football club is going to be able to lookup player stats in far more detail than FM provides, so it’s a wash.

When you first land in a FM save, it’s overwhelming. I’ll try to explain a few things as I go.

First up, you need to have a look at your squad to see what kind of tactics they can play and where you have holes. Sunderland have a fairly decent squad from day one, so I went with a pretty standard 4231. I wanted to keep it simple and let the side’s superior quality win me matches. One of the principles I’m following here is that I won’t download a premade tactic. Also: no save scumming.

Here’s how my tactic looks.

I’m using fullbacks set to attack, which gives me plenty of width in attack without having them quite as far forward as wingbacks would be, so my defense is reasonably solid. My midfield is a Deep Lying Playmaker set to defend, which causes him to drop deeper and look to play a variety of passes through the lines and across the pitch. My other central midfielders are on basic, support roles, which helps us keep shape and provide lots of passing triangles through the center of the pitch. The wingers are an inside winger on the left who cuts inside and shoots and an attacking winger on the right who tends to go to the byline and shoot in the side netting. I prefer him to actually cross the ball, but the fullbacks are providing crosses, so I can’t really complain.

If you look at the team instructions, you’ll see that we’re playing a high line and pressing with More Urgent intensity. It’s not Jurgen Klopp heavy metal football, but we’re also not Liverpool, (other than Ben Woodburn, who is, technically, Liverpool).

The next thing you should do is setup your set pieces. I don’t do every last one because I’m lazy, but I set attacking and defending corners and freekicks, but not even all the freekick options. The FM podcast hosts are shaking their heads at me, I’m sure.

My defensive corner routine is nothing special. I put players on the posts and keep most of the team in the penalty with a mix of zonal and man marking. I do like to keep my AMC on the edge of the area to clean up headed clearances and my striker forward to enable counter attacks. If I were really minmaxing this, I’d adjust those players for every match to keep my tallest players back and my fastest players forward, but I don’t. Maybe next season.

This is my current attacking corner routine, and the one I’ve used all season with pretty good success. I have 9 goals from my centerbacks, with maybe one or two from free kicks, and at least two or three from my strikers charging into the area and getting headers. I do keep three back, but that’s because I was burned too often by counterattacks in my Verona save.

In my Verona save I used this and mixed it with far post and edge of area routines. None of the three were terribly compelling, so I went with near post here, and I have zero regrets.

I’m using mixed delivery on free kicks. We’ve scored at least one banger directly from the taker and one or two more from headers. This is an area I could do better.

Once you get your tactic setup, you’ll want to do something about training and friendlies. In the preseason both training and friendlies exist to increase fitness and build knowledge of your tactic. I tend to play two friendlies a week against inferior competition, then mix in one or two better sides toward the end. I didn’t grab a pre-season training screenshot, but here’s one that shows typical training midseason.

I like to mix in the match training to keep the bonuses from attacking movement and defensive movement (they last a few weeks each), plus adding in plenty of set pieces. What you don’t want to do is run your players into the ground when they’re already playing two matches a week, so I’m using lots of technical sessions to increase their skills without as much impact on their fitness.

The season started with us being short a few coaches and scouts. I hired some. There’s no magic, really.

I wanted decent coverage in each category, which I have. I’ll worry about this more in the future when I have more money to hire better quality coaches.

Like I mentioned, Sunderland start with a pretty good side and no glaring weaknesses. Looking at the squad, I did decide to make a few additions. Ben Woodburn came in on loan from Liverpool and immediately claimed the AMC position for himself. Jamie Allen came in from Coventry for 90k with a 20k bonus due after 50 appearances. Barrie McKay came in from Swansea for 41k with various addons that could take it to 75k. Jamie has slotted well into midfield, rotating with Max Power (a real player and a brilliant name), Josh Scowen, and Carl Winchester in the two central roles. Barrie’s transfer was in October, just before the covid-delayed deadline. He’s been a great addition and has played on both wings.

Our results at the end of September could hardly have been better.

The shootout victory over Leeds was very well received, and even the shootout loss to Wycombe went down fine since we had exceeded expectations. Our results in the league were the stuff of dreams.

Things progressed well from there, which is saying something.

We pretty much just cruised through October and November. We haven’t been outplayed in a single match.

It definitely helped that we had very few injuries, though you can see the downturn in December. That coincided with Max Power, the heart of our team, spending two weeks on the sidelines with an injured foot. He was back in time to help us take full points from promotion contenders Hull and Accrington, at least.

I could hardly have asked for better results. Here’s how the table looks on 1 January.

Looking ahead, I’ll try to make some moves in January to sign some players with expiring contracts, including moving some of my oldest, most expensive players (Aiden McGeady and Grant Leadbitter) to free up some wages.

We’re clearly in a great position going into the second half of the season, but this isn’t even the halfway point. There’s a shocking number of matches to go, and one or two key injuries could easily derail us.

Here are the lads that will hopefully carry us back to the Championship in a few months’ time.

Update! Part 2 is here.

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