By the time you read this, months will have passed in our universe. Multiple seasons passed in Sunderland’s universe. Abdoulaye Kouyate was worth his 145m transfer fee. So was everyone else.
I took a few weeks off, but I decided to load up the last save I made before retiring. You know, just to see what would happen.
We won the Champions League in 2030!
(We also won the Premier League in 2029, but came 2nd in 2030.)
2031 was our year, though, including a rainy night in Sunderland where we put Barcelona to the sword.
The season and the save culminated in this:
A brilliant treble, with a comfortable win in the league, an amazing comeback from 0-2 down to City in the FA Cup final to win it 3-2, and a 4-0 over Bayern Munich in the Champion’s League final.
I ended up buying a young Italian striker that was even better than Kouyate, and we tore through everything. The side could still be incrementally improved, but Sunderland are truly one of the best teams in the world.
And with that our journey really does end. I may putter around with another save, but I don’t plan to blog about it. Next year, perhaps, I’ll be back with something for FM22.
I said at the very beginning of this long, wonderful trip that Football Manager is a youth exploitation roleplaying game with a layer of football tactics on top. This save has reminded me of just how true that it is, especially if you are starting as a lower league club.
We were fortunate to get out of League One on the first attempt and unbelievably lucky to get out of the Championship on the first attempt. We did this with a handful of signings and some key loans. We didn’t start making expensive signings until we reached the Premier League.
Even though we were relegated, the Premier League money, the global scouting range, and the bump in the club’s reputation meant that we could attract players that would never consider a League One side. It also meant we could afford to pay their transfer fees (or compensation) and wages. Our success snowballed (along with the backroom staff’s grasp of Spanish and Portuguese). After a few seasons of midtable mediocrity, we leaped up to 2nd, and then won the league the following season.
My transfer business was generally good. I brought in a number of players that didn’t quite work out, but only a few of them were sold at a loss. There are a handful of deals I regret.
In our first season in the Premier League I went a little overboard on signing young, foreign players. In prior versions of FM (pre-Brexit; thanks, Boris) you could collect wonderkids by the bushel. In FM21, with the Brexit rules, you must be more careful. We signed Victor Hugo on a free, but due to his age, he didn’t arrive until January. By the time he reached England, I had already signed 6 (technically 7) other foreign youngsters. Victor’s transfer was canceled, and he signed for another Brazilian club within days. That was all on me, and definitely a moment I learned from for future seasons.
Selling Adam Steele might have gone down as a regret given how good he’s been, but he really wanted to leave for a bigger club, and I couldn’t risk letting him leave on a free. Would we be better with Steele on the right and Victor Hugo on the left? A little, but mostly because Hugo developed so well. It’s probably a push, to be honest.
Nicolas Bacolla I should have kept. Our set piece goals really diminished in our title-winning season. I think a big part of that was the poor delivery from corners and free kicks. When you have a 6’6″ striker, it pays to have someone that can put the ball on his forehead. Bacolla could have sat in midfield alongside Pardo and given us good passing and set piece delivery. With Lee Farrell and John Ramirez, we’re actually good for passing, but our corner and free kick takers are a step down.
Vladimir Puric aka Pure Magic wasn’t quite a regret. He truly looked like he’d be great and the scouts said he’d be great. He was just an object lesson in the fact that FM these days has some built-in uncertainty. My process was good, but the outcome was just something I couldn’t predict.
We’ve had a long-running joke about Lee “the Scottish Mistake” Farrell. The fact that he was the captain of our title-winning team (technically vice-captain, but McCrorie spent much of the season on the bench after being overshadowed by Pardo) and scored two goals in the match that sealed the title really speaks for itself. He might not ever be the best player in the world, but he’s the kind of player you need in a squad; not everyone can be a superstar.
I probably paid too much for Barji. He’s good, but I could have picked up Fabio Cesar for about 1/4 the price and he would have been comparable. On the plus side, he’s been progressing well since he joined the club.
I paid way too much for Kouyate. Again, he’s good, but he didn’t even start the final match. Cordero, Martin, and Baez are slightly better suited. If Kouyate had been 30m, he would have been a bargain. At 70m I would feel like I had paid a fair price. 145m was simply too much.
But you know what? We won the league. Barji played a ton of minutes across the season. Kouyate is young and already worldclass. They’ll both be fine. I might regret how much I paid, but their next manager won’t regret having either of them available next season.
I found that there are tiers of wonderkids. Well, tiers of pricing for wonderkids. South America is a gold mine. Brazil is the obvious place, and you’re looking at about 10-15m for a burgeoning Brazilian star. Next up is probably Argentina, where you’ll pay a bit less. Around 7-13m. After that is probably Uruguay, where you’re looking 4-9m. Colombia is amazing, and you can find excellent talent that might cost you 1-4m. You’ll find fewer wonderkids in Chile, Peru, Venezuela, and Bolivia, but you’ll still find some. You can often pay under 1m in those countries.
Eastern Europe is also excellent. Serbia in particular, but Croatia and Romania are also great places to look. You’ll be paying Argentina rates in those places, sometimes up to Brazilian rates or even higher, depending on the player’s age.
Before Brexit, it was worth scouring any country in the EU since you didn’t need a work permit, but with the new points system Serbia is the same level of difficulty as Brazil. Find a player, get them some youth caps, and off you go.
I had good luck in Denmark and Belgium, but prices are much higher there at 20-40m for actual talent, though I did find some decent Championship quality players on frees.
After the Kouyate signing, I was a little shell-shocked. That was A LOT of money to spend in one place. It might not even be worth it compared to Ramirez, Cordero, and Villafane.
I did move a couple fringe players.
Holub was never going to hit the level we need for him to compete with our big guns. I let him go to Southampton in a deal that ought to reach 11.25m. I might have kept him longer in the hope that I could further increase his value, but he complained about me not selling him for 7.25m, so I let him go.
Ignacio Escalante is a similar story.
He once would have been a good player for us, but his ceiling is lower than what we have in the squad today, never mind where we’ll be when those guys get to their mid-20s. He cost us 950k, and we should make 11m on his transfer.
Gaston Araujo is the third note in this refrain. He was a bit of a problem child after I broke a promise to sign a player that would help him settle in England, and I missed multiple opportunities to sell him for a lot more than the 8.25m Crystal Palace paid us. Sigh.
He’s a Premier League quality player, but he’s not a Champion’s League quality player. We ended up making a small profit . Maybe I could have kept him around and increased his value, but I’d rather sell him, make a little money, and use his registration slot and minutes to develop a better player.
I signed this gem from Romania. He’s good at a ton of things already, and I’ll train up his technical abilities over a couple seasons. He’ll be a great addition to our midfield in another season.
He cost us 6.75m, and he’s set to arrive in the summer. He didn’t get a work permit, but we’ve been down that road before. He’ll be off to a loan the day after he arrives at the club, and he should have his permit by Christmas. That should give him time to get even better.
Former Black Cat Michal Bednar just earned us 1.9m in a move from Spain back to England. We sold him for 9.75, and Bournemouth brought him back for 5.5m, plus apparently some incentives. I hope that worked out for Almeria.
Our January results were okay.
I’m not at all happy about dropping four points at West Ham and Burnley, and the win over Leicester was much too close for comfort.
Buyer’s remorse, the 145m pound edition.
A straight red card for a two-footed tackle. February did not get off to an auspicious start, not least because Liverpool, at the time, were in 17th place on 26 points. (Six above relegation, but still.) They lost to every top 6 side, then had a horrific run in January. Look at this bloodbath:
That was our form when we were relegated, not what you’d expect from a club that’s won the league 7 out of the last 9 seasons. We picked the wrong day for a red card. Damn. They have a great squad, too. Haaland, Lautaro Martinez, Jude Bellingham, Junior Wagenaar (a regen midfielder I’ve mentioned before and would love to steal).
After the Liverpool match we hosted Sheffield United, and I had an object lesson in just how crazy our attacking depth is. Club record signing Kouyate was suspended. Martin Ramirez was out with the flu. Fede Cordero started, but picked up a knock in the second half, but I was able to bring on World U21 Player of the Year / European Golden Boy Ricardo Villafane to lead the line. He duly scored to seal a 3-1 victory.
We drew with Manchester United after Sheffield United. United have such a strong team, and I couldn’t really complain about taking the point.
Last season, in the Conference League, we played some reasonably big matches. This season, in the Champion’s League group stage, we played some legitimately big matches. I’m not sure any match Sunderland have played during my tenure has been bigger than our first away trip to AC Milan in the Champion’s League knockout round.
We went down on 10 minutes on a direct header from a corner. It’s been ages since I’ve seen one of those go in. We went down 0-2 a mere 2 minutes later to a wonderstrike from Milan’s AML. They scored AGAIN on 17 minutes with ANOTHER 23 yard rocket. Five shots, 3 on target, xG of 0.4, 3 goals. It was unbelievable.
We went into halftime down 0-3 with Milan at 0.49 xG and us at 0.78. Both sides had 7 shots with 3 on target. All theirs went in. I pulled Adam Idah, moved Freddy Baez to the left, and put Kouyate in on the right with Martin Ramirez still up top. We were the definition of mediocrity in the second half until 87 minutes, when Ricardo Villafane picked up a loose ball on a corner, drove 70 yards upfield, and scored the most magnificent solo goal you’ll ever see. Martin Ramirez had a glorious chance 2 minutes later, but smashed his shot into the keeper.
Not a great result, though I honestly think the process was fine. We generated chances, but couldn’t finish them. We need two goals at home, and that should be doable.
Our next big match was not the second leg against Milan. It was the Carabao Cup final against Everton. We went down early again, this time to an Ian Hunt (regen I tried to sign a couple seasons ago) chip over Adan Tirado on 14 minutes. Claudio Pardo brought things level on 36 minutes after a neat interchange of passes with Freddy Baez at the top of Everton’s box. He slammed a shot home into the top left corner, not giving the keeper even the remotest chance. Things held steady until 90 minutes when Everton’s keeper cleared a ball high and long. It dropped to their forward, who skipped around Puric, and slotted home. Everton 2-1 Sunderland, with the assist to the keeper. I thought we were done. Cooked. Kaput. But I had to try throwing everyone forward, so I set us to Very Attacking mentality and put everyone but the keeper and center backs onto attack. That beautiful 4th string striker Ricardo Villafane scored us a goal at 90+3!
Everton somehow got one back at 90+5 after I moved everyone back to their normal mentalities. Unfuckingbelievable. Everton 3 – 2 Sunderland at full time. I was shook for days.
We had a match at home vs Spurs. I wouldn’t call it a big match. We were favorites. We won. (It hurts to be so flippant about Spurs.) I was still punching walls about that last Everton goal.
The next Big Match was our home leg vs Milan. I had to put Everton behind me and come up with a plan to recover our two-goal deficit. I rolled with the 4231, and I tried something new to fit as many of my best attackers. Yes, the plan was to stuff even more forwards onto the pitch.
Martin Ramirez is too good to not be at the tip of the attack, and he’s proven how effective he is there, so he got the nod over Kouyate.
Look at that jumping! Dude is 6 foot 7! He’s a monster in the air, he’s damn good on the ground, and he’s going to get even better.
I dropped Kouyate behind him as a shadow striker. Freddy Baez went out wide into his normal role as a right winger. The new wrinkle was putting Fede Cordero on the left as an inside forward. He’s not actually trained in that role, but he has all the attributes for it.
He’s reasonably fast, has a wonderful first touch, good dribbling, and good finishing. He even has good passing and vision.
I made Lee “the Scottish Mistake” Farrell a deep-lying playmaker. He’s been okay this season, and I thought it would be better to have him a bit deeper in midfield where he will have more space to use his ridiculous passing and vision.
Also, for a Scottish Mistake, he’s turned out pretty damn well. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent the money on him at the time, but he’s been a solid player for us. He’s also our vice captain, which means he’s frequently the captain on the pitch with McCrorie so often on the bench or not in the match day squad.
Once the match started, we poured gas on a bonfire. A corner kick on 9 minutes saw a loose ball in the box fall to Claudio Pardo, who smashed it into the net. Two minutes later Martin Ramirez brought us level on aggregate and ahead on away goals.
We took a 2-0 lead into halftime and looked GOOD for it, too. I told the lads how proud I was of them and to keep up the good work, and I actually meant it this time.
At 66 minutes Kouyate was on a yellow card and had a 6.5 rating, so I pulled him for Enric. I’m not saying I’m worried about my 130m signing being underwhelming, but I’d sure like it a lot more if he were overwhelming. Or just whelming. Is that a word? (Merriam-Webster says “yes.”) Fede Cordero’s condition dropped into the red around 80 minutes, so he came off for Jhonny Palacios, who has developed really well.
Everything was going well and looking good. And then…
Milan hit the post off a corner. I lost a year of my life. Moments later, we raced upfield, Donnarumma made a good stop on a Jhonny Palacios shot, and the ball landed at Freddy Baez’s golden feet. He slid a shot inside the near post as cool as kiss your hand, and we were up 4-3 on aggregate.
I pulled a knackered Scottish Mistake for John Ramirez and dialed time-wasting to 11. We calmly saw out the rest of the match for a 3-0 win, and we advanced 4-3 on aggregate.
Really solid performances pretty much across the board. I’m not actually worried about Kouyate. He joined the team two months ago, and most of these players have played together for years. He’ll adapt and be a star.
I promised glory nights in the Champion’s League. I. Have. Delivered. The weather did, too. It was spitting rain and howling wind for all 90 minutes.
We drew Manchester United for the next round. A tough draw, but I think we can get through. If we do, it will be Arsenal or PSG awaiting in the semi-final.
Our youth take arrived. I’m not blown away by any of them, but Niall Hyland is a Fairly Professional young striker who is starting with 14 finishing.
Supposedly he could be as good as Villafane. Which would be great, given all the awards Villafane just won.
We followed Milan with a poor loss at Spurs in the FA Cup quarter-final. I wasn’t terribly fussed about it given that I’d far rather focus on the league and the Champion’s League. But then Miguel Benavidez came into my office complaining about a broken promise to win silverware.
Maybe give me another two months, my dude. A lot can change between now and then. He’s a good player, and I’m not terribly worried. If we can win the league, he’ll probably withdraw his transfer request. (The promises system is rubbish and needs review. Seriously.)
Signing an injury-prone player is not bad in isolation. Fede Cordero is injury-prone, and he’s been amazing. Victor, on the other hand, has spent more time in the physio room than on the practice pitches.
Three major injuries in a row. I’ll try to sell him as soon as I can. That leaves me Barji and Neco at right back. Probably enough, but I’ve had my eye on this lad for a while.
He has a 15m release clause, but the bad news is that he’s also injury-prone.
It’s a hard call, but he is generally better than Fernandez.
I’ll figure it out in the summer. I’d still rather have a top-tier holding midfielder to rotate with Pardo, but it’s hard to pass up a physical monster like Cesar.
More bad news arrived after the Spurs loss.
Puric is probably our best overall defender. We still have good depth there, but I hate to lose him for so long. That’s the end of his season.
ANOTHER award for our strikeforce.
After going up 2-0 at Bournemouth, we did something I haven’t seen in ages. We gave up 3 unanswered goals, ultimately losing 2-3. It left us in second place in the table, but with two games in hand.
Our first leg against Manchester United was at the Stadium of Light. It wasn’t great. Mason Greenwood scored a stupendous solo goal on a corner counterattack (which reiterates that I need be double-checking to ensure I have a holding midfielder (Pardo) outside the box and not Freddy Baez, who has the defensive nous of my cat). Greenwood bagged his second late in the second half, and I thought were going to go into the second leg down two, but Jhonny Palacios did a fine job cleaning up a loose ball in the United penalty box, and brought us back to 1-2.
We need to score at least two when we’re away in Manchester, but we’ve done that once already this season.
The run-in isn’t terrible. We need some away wins vs United and Chelsea, and we really need a home win (or draw) against City, but things could be worse.
We scraped a 1-0 over Derby. We needed 3 points, we got 3 points.
Then came United. I checked and double-checked our set piece routines. I also set us up in the 343, thinking we’d stay tighter at the back and see if we could nick a goal on a set piece. The plan mostly worked, in that we kept things reasonably tight at the back, but we generated nothing going forward. With us needing two goals, I switched back to the 4231 at halftime and made a double change, pulling Enric (already tiring) and Felipe Augusto, and bringing on Fede Cordero and Freddy Baez. A pretty significant offensive upgrade at the cost of some defensive stability. I also checked all the set pieces AGAIN.
We played much better, and Nathan D’Haene pulled a goal back for us from a corner on 56 minutes. We were looking good, and at 65 minutes I switched Lee Farrell from DLP to CM-A to try to get a little more going forward. With the score 2-2 on aggregate, we were still down on away goals. At 75 minutes we went to Very Attacking mentality. Barji, at right back, was shifted from wingback attack to complete wingback attack. At 78 minutes, we cleared a corner, it was fed back into the box to a lurking Harry Kane, who passed to the open man, who finished without fuss. MUFC 1 – 1 Sunderland. We threw everything at United, including Pardo smashing a shot off the post. We couldn’t break the deadlock, and our first Champion’s League foray ended with a 1-1 draw and a 3-2 loss on aggregate.
I’m a little disappointed, but I can’t really complain, either. We played them about as close to even as possible. I could have done a little better with my set pieces in the first leg. Had I kept Pardo outside the area instead of Freddy Baez, I don’t think Mason Greenwood would have scored the counterattack goal that he scored. That said, my fullbacks should have stopped him, but I keep them around more for their attacking capability than their defensive capability.
The good news is that we still have the league in our sights.
We’re even on points at 69, but we have two games in hand.
We went away to Villa, and we should have thumped them. We were the better team, by far. They scored early when Jhonny Palacios missed a header and Neco Williams, standing on our goal line, somehow let the whole ball cross the whole line before heading it away. John Ramirez (midfielder not striker) leveled things just after halftime with a 25-yard screamer. Just when I thought we were going to scrape a draw, Freddy Baez broke up field, beat three guys, and slotted home. It felt like a smash and grab, but I’ll take the 3 points.
Top again, and we still have two games in hand.
Our next match was against Chelsea, and I put us back to the 343. The same principles of keeping it tight at the back and looking to counter or score on set pieces applied. Naturally, we went down after 11 minutes to a goal scored from open play. Like, wtf, my guys? Eleven minutes later, the same story repeated itself. I went nuclear and yanked D’Haene (who was the least fit of my 3 centerbacks and culpable for Chelsea’s first goal) for Freddy Baez and switched to the 4231. It kind of worked, in that we did stop the bleeding and scored a goal late in the match, but we also conceded from another corner and lost 3-1.
My honest opinion is that Chelsea have a better squad. We have some great, young players, but they have great, peak players. Give us a couple more seasons, and we’ll probably be superior.
The loss took us back to second place, but still with a game in hand.
I have a feeling our season is going to be decided on May 6th.
I rotated us a bit for Southampton at home. Fede was injured, Kouyate, Farrell, Pardo, and Martin Ramirez were knackered. We started in the 4231 with Villafane up top, Palacios on the left, and Baez on the right. So’ton were a bit livelier than I wanted to see, and on 15 minutes Neco Williams put in a wretched piece of defending and let his man skin him and finish inside Tirano’s near post. At this point, Neco is a liability. I hate that. He was good for us for years, but he’s gotten older and we’ve gotten better. The problem is that he’s Welsh, which means he doesn’t count as foreign, and I’m running into registration problems as my foreign legion ages.
We went into halftime down 0-1. I gave the lads the hairdryer, and we went back out to the pitch where Neco managed to get skinned again, but this time Tirano made the save. I had to throw on Farrell and Martin Ramirez to try to salvage something. Before they could enter the pitch, Neco failed to cover a defensive breakdown between D’Haene and Benavidez, and So’ton were up 2-0. We pulled one back, and I went full gegenpress to try to salvage something. We generated chance after chance but couldn’t get a second goal or a draw.
We’re really gonna bottle this, aren’t we.
We utterly destroyed Wolves 6-1, and somehow want-away center back Miguel Benavidez scored a hat trick (two headers and a penalty). We went back to second, even on points and 5 back on goal differential. We legit need to run up the score against bad teams now.
After the Wolves demolition, Mike France–our Director of Football–stopped by my office with a bit of news. On the one hand, I don’t begrudge the player his money.
On the other hand, what the hell did I let slip into his contract? (I swear it was 300k at 10 assists and 350k at 20 assists, but apparently not.)
We went to 9th place Everton in desperate need of a win to keep our title hopes alive. Kouyate earned some more credit by heading down a wicked, bending Palacios cross into the path of Felipe Augusto, who finished from 5 yards. Martin Ramirez was rested for an hour, but with a 1-0 lead, I brought him in and he scored on 65 minutes to put us up 2-0. The two goals were all we needed. We might struggle with Everton in a cup final, but not in the league, not today. Three more points, and what could be the title decider at home against Manchester City next weekend.
The pressure is back on them.
They won on Sunday because of course they did.
And West Ham let them run up the goals.
Tell them they aren’t expected to win? Are you kidding me? I’m not opposed to lying to the players, but not that, not now.
Manchester City at home. The title on the line. They are a very good team, they have the best striker in the world, but we’ve beaten them before. We will do it again.
Lee Farrell got our first shot of the match, wide open from 15 yards, but he blazed it over the bar. The match engine said it was 0.2 xG, and I can believe it. That should have been 1-0. Five minutes later our Brazilian left back Gabriel came marauding across the box, picked up a Freddy Baez cross, and rifled home. Sunderland 1 – 0 City. Game. On. Not two minutes passed before a poor City goal kick fell to Enric, who passed forward to Baez, who laid the ball into the path of a wide open Martin Ramirez. 2-0. Four minutes later Fede Cordero received the ball on a throw-in from the left, spun across the box, and buried a shot into the far corner. 3-0 after 12 minutes. We’re going to win the league. Sing it with me. We’re gonna win the league! We’re gonna win the league!
Is 15 minutes into the match too early to start time wasting?
We played excellently through the first half, but we did give up a goal on 40 minutes, only for Fede Cordero to score our 4th late in added time. At halftime it was Sunderland 4 – 1 City.
At 80 minutes I went to a Balanced mentality (we were Attacking before; we’re always Attacking by default) and set time wasting to 11. Delgado managed to get himself a goal in the 4th minute of 2 minutes of added time, but it didn’t matter. Sunderland 4 – 2 City.
The team have a lot to be proud of in that image. Yes, I absolutely, positively did a manual save after that win, just in case. I’m not save-scumming, but I’m sure as HELL not letting a win like that get lost due to a crash.
We need 1 point away at Fulham to win the league, and we have a week for our starters to rest before kickoff.
I changed nothing for Fulham. Martin Ramirez scored on 8 minutes. Freddy Baez worked the ball down the right and fed it back across the middle for an onrushing Lee Farrell, who smashed home from the middle of the penalty box. After completely dominating, Fulham pulled one back through Timothy Weah, who hit a preposterous curler over Tirado and into the corner. We went into halftime with the scoreline reading Fulham 1 – 2 Sunderland, and the xG at 0.09 to 1.37.
I took us out in the second half and asked the team to lower the tempo a bit. We usually are at high tempo to work the ball upfield more quickly, but A: I wanted to hold onto our lead, and B: we are technically much better than we used to be, and a more methodical approach should be fruitful. Fulham did scrounge another shot on target, but at 61 minutes Lee Farrell picked up the ball on the edge of the penalty area, took two touches, and fired home his second of the day. Which should have wrapped up things and taken all the suspense out, but 2 minutes later Gabriel scythed down a Fulham player in the box, and they converted the penalty. Fulham 2 – 3 Sunderland. Meanwhile City were up 4 – 0 over Leicester. I dropped our mentality to Balanced and pushed our time wasting to 11. Adan Tirado, in an effort to make even more of my hair turn gray, played a freekick from a Fulham offside past Benavidez and directly to Tim Weah, but Tirado redeemed himself and saved the resulting shot. I worked through my subs in the final minutes, wasting as much time as I could.
The whistle blew at 95:10 after what was supposed to be 4 minutes of added time. Fulham 2 – 3 Sunderland.
We did it.
We’ve won the league.
Read that again. We’ve won the league.
In 9 seasons, we’ve gone from League 1 to Premier League champions. The path has not always been smooth, but we’ve established ourselves as the best club in England.
Freddy Baez won the English Players’ Young Player of the Year. He had 7 goals and 11 assists. He deserved it. I won English Premier Division Manager of the Year. I also deserved it.
Multiple players made the team of the year. Including our former player Adam Steele.
We won the league, though if you put a few pints me and ask if we’re best the squad in the country, I couldn’t honestly say yes. Our best 11 can compete with and even beat any 11 in England, but we lack the depth of City, Chelsea, and United. We’re also much younger than they are, which can lead to matches like at Chelsea where we go behind and look utterly lost. Our young players will get better, though. We might not win the league or the Champion’s League next season, but we’ll be in the running for both.
At the beginning of the season I laid out what I would do if we won the league or the Champion’s League. I meant it. This has been a long, exciting save, but it’s been tiring, too.
I’ll write a retrospective and lessons-learned post sometime soon and put it up next week.
I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Fam.
After our start in August, I didn’t think the good times could continue. They did. I had to rotate a bit due to fixture congestion, and Leicester were able to take advantage to nab a point off us. We had great wins against Liverpool and Chelsea in the league.
We rolled through October.
Same story, different month. More good wins in the league, this time over Man United and Spurs.
At the end of October, we were top of the league.
We were also top of our Champion’s League group.
November was our first actual stumble.
My squad rotation bit us at home against Villa. We were slightly the better side, but couldn’t find the net. Rhian Brewster scored a penalty on 82 minutes, and Villa got their second after I threw everyone forward.
Our youth intake preview came in.
It doesn’t look very promising, despite the green rows. “This is a very poor crop of players.” That’s after I managed another upgrade to our recruitment.
One of my positions of “need” (I use the word lightly) is left back. Gabriel has been hurt for months, and Nilson is right-footed. Our scouts turned up a great-looking player.
Oh, wait. Victor Hugo. The one that got away. He ended up being better than Vlad Dragic. He is also monumentally expensive. I don’t think we’ll be signing him. Hopefully Gabriel stays healthy and develops further.
You know how I complain about not being able to spend our transfer budget? I… may have done a thing.
I’ve been sending the scouts to watch Kouyate for a few years, but he was never interested in joining us. He is now. He’s not the best striker in the world. I still think City’s guy Delgado is–and Mbappe and Haaland are still very much playing–but Kouyate could be top 5.
The catch is that I don’t really need another top-shelf striker. (You always need another top-shelf striker.) I have Martin Ramirez, who is probably top 10 in the world. Fede Cordero is right there with Ramirez.
Kouyate is better than them! He also will cost me 130m quid (plus agent fees) with a 15m bonus due after 50 league appearances.
I did it. F*** it. What’s the point of being rich if you don’t enjoy it.
There are clubs that have a philosophy of not signing a player only because they are good and available, instead looking to fill the actual needs in their squad. That is not my philosophy in general, but certainly not when I have a 165m quid transfer budget burning a hole in my pocket. You could argue I overpaid for him. You would probably be right, given our squad situation. But if we win a major trophy this year, and Kouyate is scoring goals along the way, will you complain? I don’t think so.
We are so loaded in attack, it’s kind of ridiculous. Kouyate, M. Ramirez, Baez, Cordero, Idah, Villafane, Palacios. I need to start playing 3124 and see if we can win with 4 strikers and 2 wingers on the pitch.
Our form in December dipped a little.
But only a little. City scored multiple late goals when we were throwing bodies forward to recover a 1-2 scoreline for a draw. The Porto match was a heavily rotated side in a match that was meaningless for us.
We’re in great shape at the end of December. I guess, technically, I could ask for a perfect record, but WE’RE TOP OF THE LEAGUE AT CHRISTMAS. By 8 points no less.
This is from 2 January, to reflect our club record transfer.
After we paid Lyon for Kouyate, our bank balance took a major hit, but we’re still preposterously rich. If I sell a couple more fringe players like Araujo and Escalante, I could still potentially bring in a 50-60m midfielder.
I checked to see if he’d come coach for us, but he wants to be a Director of Football, and he has terrible stats for it. I passed.
We had four new kids join the club in early June.
I mentioned him in the last update, but Neja checks a lot of boxes for me. He’s a professional, has good physical attributes for his age, and starts with a good foundation of defensive technical attributes. I don’t think he’ll play much his first season, but if he develops well, he could get lots of minutes in the future.
Miguel is another professional who has tons of room to get better. I initially signed him thinking he’d be a decent right back, but he’ll actually fit better as a centerback. With his personality and potential, I have high hopes he’s pushing Puric and D’Haene for their minutes.
Oliveira is a project signing. He was free, he had high potential, and I thought I could sell him on in a season or two. I also need to run the face updater again.
Ricardo is another I’ve previously mentioned. He was scheduled to arrive this summer to avoid our registration limits last season. I expect him to contribute from day 1. He’s cut from the same cloth as Fede Cordero and Martin Ramirez. If his physical abilities develop a bit, he could be a top, top player.
These guys make up 4 of my possible 6 transfers for U21 international players.
Julien is a world-class wingback, and the whole world can tell. He cost us 45m rising to 69m. He doesn’t really have the crossing I want, but he’s a physical beast and really good everywhere else.
Shortly after making the bid for Julien Barji, PSG approached with an offer for Vlad Dragic.
Vlad is a good player, and two seasons ago he would have been too important for me to allow him to leave, but at this point I’m not so sure. He has okay physical attributes with good pace. Mentally he’s excellent. Technically he’s just okay. His crossing is poor, and his dribbling is meh. Yes, he can pass and defend, but I need more from my wingbacks.
Farewell, Vlad. You were a good player for us. He cost us 18.75m in 2024, and he’s departed for 34.5m.
I immediately replaced him with a Brazilian wonderkid. Gabriel set us back 13m. He’s pretty comparable to Vlad, tbh, though with slightly better crossing. Gabriel is 5 out 6 U21 internationals.
Maybe I should have held out for more money for Vlad? Because a couple weeks later, I offered out Jordan Carlin, who ended up being a good player, but not Champion’s League calibre, and Club Brugge offered me 26.5m for him.
Tot ziens, Jordan. You ended up better than Finley Burns, but not quite good enough.
Goce was supposed to be our left back of the future, but I’m an idiot and didn’t realize he was right-footed. He actually did well in that role, but he came by my office worried that he’d never be good enough for our first team. I let him leave for Club Brugge in a deal that starts at 23.5m and could reach 32.5m. I am, unfortunately, paying part of his salary for the next FOUR years, but it’s still a great profit on a guy that joined us on a free (and forfeited his loyalty bonus by asking to be transfer-listed). With Nilson and Gabriel as the first-choice left backs and Puric and Augusto who can cover it, I’m not worried.
I brought in my final international wonderkid of the season late in the transfer window.
Wojciech was too good to pass up. The scouts thought he was 5 star potential, he had a release clause of 4.9m, great pace, and good enough mental and technical attributes. I can see him being a left-sided Freddy Baez in 18 months, so I got a deal done before West Ham or Arsenal could steal him. Now that he’s here and my coaches think he’s only 4 star potential, I have mild misgivings, but it’s getting hard to gauge the really high potential players.
I’m trying to come to terms with this:
Yunus Musah is a Bayern Munich player, and he would join us if I paid to get him
He’s a “world class midfielder”
My scouts rate him as 3 stars
Are we really to the point that world-class players are only 3 stars? I think my scouts are LIARS.
We took a shot at this guy, a truly world-class player, for 54m quid, who is–according to my (lying) scouts–the best midfielder in the world. He’s in the top few, for sure.
He chose Arsenal. I even offered him more money! (Seriously, dude wanted extortionate wages.) I would be annoyed, but I was more shocked that his agent even considered our offer. I’m trying to spend our war chest. I am. I just can’t do it with our current reputation.
I was minding my own business when Arsenal offered something like 30m for Nicolas Bacolla. I rejected it, of course. And the numpty decided to whinge about it.
He’s a good player, but also a little weird in that he’s supposed to be a winger, but he’s not really fast enough for it. He actually does reasonably well in midfield, but he doesn’t quite have the defensive nous or work rate to be one of my top three mids. If he didn’t already play for me, I’d seriously consider buying him, but I’d probably pass unless I could get a good deal. In the end, I let him leave for 62m (in installments). We didn’t end up paying many of the escalators in our original purchase agreement, so he only cost us 13.5m. I hope he likes keeping the bench warm for Filipe Canario.
Our first match of the season was against… Arsenal. I probably should have put us into our 343 to give us good defensive solidity away against a top 6 side. I forgot. We went in with 10 of our first choice 11 (Nathan D’Haene was still away on international duty), and we won 2-0 while looking good in the process. Guys. Gals. We’re good now. Legitimately good.
Leeds came to visit the Stadium of Light. Other than giving away an unnecessary penalty, we played our game and took full points with a 3-1 victory.
A trip to Sheffield United was spoiled only by the lack of a clean sheet. We cruised to a 4-1 victory, and Ricardo Villafane bagged two, proving that he’s an excellent addition to our attack and giving me a great option to rotate with Freddy Baez. He’ll get the winger minutes Bacolla would have seen, plus get some time at striker.
Burnley visited us. We smashed them 3-0.
We swept the August awards with me getting manager of the month, Fede Cordero getting player of the month, Martin Ramirez coming in second, and Kevin Beck Hebo coming in third.
At the end of August, the table looked like this:
I rotated players for those matches, and we still dominated.
This could have been a lot worse. We can realistically top our group.
We are richer than ever. I tried to spend 84m on a good (but not as good as Canario) German midfielder. Bayern wouldn’t take my money.
So I was cruising along, dealing with transfers and the start of the season, and who should come calling but the actual Football Association.
Huh. England made it to the Euro 2028 semis and went out in extra time to eventual winners Belgium.
I thought about it for a good 5 minutes before I declined the job. Even if I could work both jobs, which was possible in previous iterations of FM, I’d rather focus my (real life) time on Sunderland.
Which does bring us to my personal objectives. If we win the Champion’s League, I’m retiring. If we win the Premier League, I’m probably retiring. If we do well in both but win neither, I don’t know. I may have another season after this one in me. Beyond that, the outlook is unclear.
This update is going to be a bit of a different structure than the others have been. Mostly because I didn’t take as many notes as I went along this time, so the fixtures and results are all retrospective. The blog is not dying, and I’m definitely playing at least another season after this one.
Our players are actually good now. Not just young and with potential, but young and ready to play Right Now. Remember how I told you that Martin Ramirez was outshining Fede? The rest of the world seems to agree.
For the record, while a few of my wonderkids have release clauses in their contracts, Martin does not. He also has 4.5 years left on his 26k per week deal. (That will soon turn into 44.5k a week due to him playing so much.) I’m not saying I’m good at this game, but I do get things right on occasion.
Coming into the January transfer window, we had a solid war chest if we found any players who could improve our squad and were willing to join.
By “war chest” I mean “176m quid at the end of December.” That’s frankly obscene, but so is the Premier League TV revenue.
Our January form wasn’t great. Losing to Liverpool didn’t bother me, but the West Ham result was poor, and the dropped points at Bristol City were egregious. We continued to fight for the top 4, but at this point we were down into the Europa League places and I was afraid we’d slip right back to 7th as we have in the past.
We turned things around in February, stomping Chesterfield in our FA Cup replay, recording a famous victory over Chelsea, losing narrowly in a match where we played well at United, and thumping Leeds.
March was nearly perfect, only marred by the FA Cup exit. Annihilating Hoffenheim made up for it, though. The win against Arsenal was a good one, too. This put us back into the top 4.
Our youth intake was rubbish, as usual.
LA Galaxy turned up in March asking to take Harrison Jackson on loan. I countered with a 15m direct sale, which was a bit lower than the 20m I wanted last summer, but matched his value at the time. They accepted it.
He joined us on a free in 2025, played a good bit in his first season, but was replaced by better, younger players. In the end, he made us 15m quid. Darn good business, in my view.
April was one of the best months in the history of this save. After floating around the top 4 spots in the league, we finished the month with an amazing win at Manchester City that left us in second place in the league, behind Chelsea. We also progressed in the Conference League, including a first leg away win at Lyon.
And then there was May. We finished the job against Lyon to make the Conference League final. We then had a horrible, terrible, I-can’t-believe-it match against Huddersfield. A match that we may rue for decades to come. Had we won that match, we would have gone into the final day with a chance at winning the league. We would have needed Chelsea to stumble (which they did), but without those points, Chelsea clinched it. We needed a win vs Spurs to confirm 2nd, which we achieved with surprising ease.
To repeat: Sunderland Football Club just finished second in the Premier League! This was Chelsea’s run-in:
They had a commanding position in the league at the beginning of April, and then the wheels just fell off. Four scoreless draws! They wanted us to win the league, and we nearly did it.
We’re in the Champion’s League next season, friends.
I don’t know if we’ll ever have a better chance at winning the league. Hopefully next year, but 80 points is the lowest any league winner has had during this save. Honestly, though, if we can win some of those home matches against the top 6 sides and clean up our form a little against the basement dwellers, we should be in the conversation again.
Our players received significant recognition. Chelsea received more, but they did win the league.
We did still have one match left vs Braga in the Conference League. Going into the match, I went with our 4231.
I wanted our best players on the pitch, and I wanted to exert as much control over the match as I could. And if we needed to go more defensive, Pardo could drop into the back three.
Freddy Baez had our first shot within 15 seconds, but it was horrifically off target. To my surprise, Braga held possession around 52%, but they couldn’t generate much going forward while we were taking shots, including hitting the woodwork on 30 minutes. We went into halftime with 15 shots, but only 1 on target. Braga had exactly zero.
I have the lads the hairdryer, and sent them back out exactly as they were. Martin Ramirez scored his 32nd goal of the season on 54 minutes, cutting in from the left wing in Adam Idah’s role. It was nearly offside, but the goal stood and we were up 1-0. We kept the pressure, not so much dominating possession as simply never allowing Braga to get near our goal. Freddy Baez doubled our lead at 90+2. We won, of course. 2-0. Braga never took a single shot. It was the most anti-climactic cup final imaginable.
Winning the cup paid us 2.5m, but check this:
19m for television money! I didn’t expect that, at all. How delightful. We also received 1.45m for ranking pool money. Not bad at all.
Our new arrivals were key. Ramirez was even better than Fede, D’Haene was worth every pence, Kevin Beck Hebo played a ton, and Pardo was brilliant as our holding midfielder.
Finances were good. We’re still rich, of course.
End of season meetings are so dumb.
We came in second, and you don’t think we can qualify for the Europa League next season, lads? Are you mental? I suggested that we could finish top half, and they felt like that was better.
We’re still rich. Richer than ever, in fact.
Our keepers better than league average. I actually just gave Tirado a new contract on 79k a week. He wanted over 100k, and I had to offer a massive loyalty bonus to keep the wages down.
Our defenders are better than league average. We’re actually being held back here by Burns, Augusto and Jordan, who are all mid-table quality rather than Champion’s League quality. At least one will need to go in the summer if I can make it work with the homegrown rules.
Our midfield is now a position of strength rather than weakness. You love to see it.
The attack isn’t quite a good as the midfield, but our best attackers are top shelf and the guys behind them still have room to develop (other than Idah).
Looking about the squad, we don’t have any glaring holes. We could probably do with a better left-winger than Adam Idah, and our fullbacks could be better. I have tons of quality forwards, so I may not even need to go shopping for the winger.
One nice thing about having a decent-sized squad of wonderkids is that I can rotate and still have actual quality coming off the bench. My rotated sides are as strong as my starting 11 was our first season in the Premier League. It gives me the ability to play pretty much any non-Premier League side while resting my most-important players.
It’s not Champion’s League money, but that 2.66m isn’t chump change, either. It doesn’t matter too much for us, but if I were playing in a smaller league, that would be a noticeable boost. Add in money for wins/draws and advancing in the competition, and we’re near 5m if you get to the semis and lose. (We should win the competition, but I’m thinking of some saves I’ve done in smaller European countries.) Did UEFA actually get something right in their latest money grab?
Our scouts turned up another hotshit Argentinian striker.
Great agility, good pace, dribbling, finishing, teamwork, work rate, and first touch. He is injury prone, which is certainly a negative, but the scouts think he would be the best striker at the club if he were here today.
That doesn’t look true to me, to be honest, but he’s not far off, either. I signed him, of course. Boca was willing to take 10m with half over three years. Due to our signing limits, I’ve set him to arrive next summer.
September started pretty well with us being flat track bullies and running up the score against drastically inferior teams while I used highly-rotated lineups. And then this happened.
Some days you’re the dog; some days you’re the hydrant. Our defense of the Carabao Cup has ended at the first opportunity.
We went to Stamford Bridge to face league-leading Chelsea. We lost.
Our first big glory night on the European stage arrived with the visit of seven-time Ligue 1 winners Olympique Lyonnais. The weather was sadly pleasant, and while we hammered them in terms of shots, we only found the back of the net one time. That one time was enough to claim the points and keep us top of Group A in the Conference League.
We finished September in a good place.
The only real surprise was away at Hull, but otherwise no complaints.
Individually, we had some stand-out performers. Ten goals in 3 matches got us some recognition. Our recruitment has been excellent. Someone should get a raise.
It’s me. I should get a raise. 83k a week makes me tied for the highest earner at the club, with Kevin De Bruyne.
October started with a pair of narrow losses vs Manchester United and at Arsenal. Both matches were winnable, and I had my best 11 on the pitch, but we just couldn’t keep the ball out of the net in two matches where we kept the opposition to low-quality chances. Therefore, I went stress shopping.
For the low, low price of one point three million pounds I was able to secure another left-footed centerback. (I already have three, somehow.) Nejc is a Professional, which I really appreciate. He’s physically gifted, which I also appreciate. He’s a little sub-par in his mental and technical attributes, though he’s starting from a decent base and can easily improve. With his potential, he probably will improve.
Will he ever be as good as D’Haene or Puric? Maybe not. Will he give me another solid athlete to plug into my backline and make me 20m in a couple years? Almost certainly. I will admit this isn’t my best purchase, but I wanted another centerback prospect, and he’s only a Breakthrough Prospect, so it’s not like he expects to play every match.
Some days you’re the dog; some days you’re the hydrant. Adam Idah edition.
We scored SEVEN goals AT Everton. They’re a good team in this save! What a way to cap off the month.
Like I mentioned, two narrow losses to start the month, but good results the rest of the way. I should feel bad about hammering Plzen so badly. I do not. The Leeds match was one we controlled, though didn’t get as many chances as I wanted. I shifted things around a little prior to the Everton match. It, uh, worked.
We ended the month in 6th amidst a ridiculously tight table for there having been 11 matches already.
Our defense is quiet and leaky, but our attack is aggressive and clinical. This is so strange. In seasons past we were the opposite.
Let’s talk set pieces.
I’ve been double-checking my corners before each match. Well, before most matches. I forgot against Southampton, and we were counter-attacked twice and conceded two goals. The problem was that my guys on the edge of the area were actually forward, since my usual guy there was taking the corner. The ball was cleared out, the defenders got to it first, and it was two on two against our fullbacks. By keeping someone lurking on the edge of the area, we have someone to sweep up the loose ball, or at least a third body to contest the counter-attack. I’m also using someone to attack the ball from the edge of the area to give us another body rushing into the box, but this person has little effect on stopping counters. As you’re drawing up your own corner routines, I really, REALLY recommend having two back plus one on the edge of the area. Be smarter than me. November was almost perfect. The start was a little dicey with a narrow 1-0 away at Viktoria Plzen and a 0-0 at home to Villa, but when you score 15 goals in the next 3 matches, it’s hard to complain too much.
It feels really good to hammer mid-table Premier League teams.
We finished the month in the lofty heights of 3rd. Can we stay there? I doubt it, but the upcoming schedule is forgiving.
We should dismantle Norwich, Fulham, Huddersfield, and Bournemouth. That doesn’t mean we will, but it’s more possible this season than ever before. I don’t much care about Lyon and will probably rotate with Spurs in mind. Spurs and City are always tough matches. We could lose 4-1. We could win 2-0. We could draw 3-3 or 0-0. Pretty much any result is in the cards. If we come out of the month with 12 more points, I’ll be happy. That will keep us in the Europa League places, I think. Fede Cordero hit a rough patch without any goals, so moved Martin Martinez up top. He’s been outstanding.
Fede is still getting lots of minutes in the Conference League (EURO Cup II) and off the bench, but Martin is the clear starter until his form falters. We’ll see how he does against the top of the Premier League.
Oddly enough, Idah has been our best goalscorer coming off the left.
Thirteen in the league! I’d say about half of them are headers, either from Freddy Baez and Neco Williams crosses or from set pieces.
All that investment in our youth setup and we get “This is not a great group of young players.” Killing me, SI.
I said I’d be happy with 12 points from December. I would have been, though I was a bit worried that we followed up a 4-0 demolition of Norwich with a 1-1 draw at Fulham. The low score was bad enough, but we gave up an 84th minute goal to drop the points. Away to Lyon was a freebie as far as I was concerned. I heavily rotated our lineup. The lads brought us back another 1-1 draw. I was far happier about that one. For a few minutes of the Spurs match I thought we’d run away with it. Martin Ramirez scored in the first minute, and we had a chance to go up by 2 goals on 29 minutes, only for Fede Cordero to have a penalty saved. After a first half of Black Cat dominance, Spurs scored early in the second half and played much better. We had a chance to seal it late, but Fede hit the post, and we took only another 1-1 draw against the league leaders.
Then we rattled off 12 unanswered goals against City, Huddersfield, and Bournemouth. Twelve unanswered goals nicely spread across the 3 matches, no less.
We ended up with 14 points from the month.
We’re 3 points back of first place after Boxing Day.
That will probably turn into a 5 point deficit if Spurs win their game in hand. We’ve played exceedingly well over the first half of the season. The only loss where I was genuinely annoyed was at Wolves in August. I can’t complain about Chelsea, United, or Arsenal, especially when 2 out of 3 were on the road.
Looking ahead, January is promising.
An FA Cup match we’ll probably bottle, a tough home match against Liverpool, and a bunch of matches we absolutely should be winning. I predict 10 points from the 5 matches, but I’m secretly hoping for 13 (and assuming that we’ll draw one of Liverpool or West Ham).
At this point I think we’re more likely to win the league than to come in 7th. More likely we finish 4th or 5th, but anything could happen. We even play Spurs at home on the final day, so there’s opportunity for high drama.
Just after the season ended, Kyril dropped by to congratulate himself for his fine running of the club.
We no longer have the lowest wage bill in the league, but we do have the best wages to turnover ratio. Yay, I guess. The real story here, in my opinion, is how poorly Kyril is doing with sponsorship deals. After three seasons of solid mid-table results, shouldn’t we be able to shill more pasties and used cars?
Our matchday and ticket revenue is actually pretty decent. You’re welcome, Kyril. I will take significant credit for getting bums into seats every other Saturday.
As the numbers above hinted, we’re doing well financially. This is the June 1 update–before all our transfer spending goes through for the deals I arranged in the last update. It’ll be interesting to see how much we make back as I jettison some dead wood and potentially lose a couple important players if the big clubs come hunting.
Our new transfer record! I’m happy to have him join. He’ll slot straight into our backline.
Darcey came by with a note about our new record spending. Darcey, talk to me in September. We’ve got a lot of summer left.
I’d say this is the rich getting richer, but 161m is a lot of money, even for Manchester City. This guy is so amazing, though. They did eventually get him, and I’m dreading facing him in the league next season.
Don’t worry about Manchester City, though. They also signed one of my centerback targets.
Yet again, no one was offering on this guy, but as soon as our offer went in, the biggest clubs in Europe swooped in.
Let’s talk about some good news aka spring cleaning in Sunderland. I moved multiple players out of the club over the course of the summer.
We signed Marcus on a free. He left for 17m. Granted, we’re going to pay 250k of his wages over the next year, but that’s still a fantastic profit.
You may or may not remember Blair Sellars. I barely remember Blair Sellars. He’s a homegrown player from the academy who was never remotely going to be good enough for the first team. Somehow I’ve managed to ship him to Nottingham Forest for 1.7m.
You certainly remember Obren Cikic, one of our first nearly-wonderkids. He was a good player for us for three seasons, but we outgrew him. He leaves a much better player than when he joined, but he’s still a weird collection of attributes. Not enough pace to be a winger, not quite good enough to fit into our midfield as a destroyer. We brought him in for 1.7m and we sold him in a deal that should get very near the 25m max.
Brad Laws was our most promising academy player, but he never quite hit the level I feel we need for a starting striker.
Physically he’s excellent, mentally he’s good, and technically he’s below par. (I’ve said all this before, but it’s still true six months later.) If his finishing or dribbling had been a bit better, he could have been a good rotation player for us. Salzburg have offered us a deal that could reach 24m, which I considered to be good for someone of Brad’s level (the Championship, basically).
Sima’s transfer was the conclusion of last summer’s fiasco. I tried to sell him last summer, but I couldn’t find a buyer at the price I wanted, then he threw a fit about me selling him and I promised I would keep him. Well, it turns out that promise meant I’d keep him for last summer, the winter transfer window, and THIS transfer window. I was willing to let him stay around last autumn, but I was annoyed about not selling him in January. I decided to just move him on this summer and damn the consequences. After he spent the season in the U23s, he had no real stature within the team, so moving him didn’t affect morale. I only managed 7.25m, which was about 1/4 of what I was wanting last year. He’s basically the same player he was when we had 35m offers for him a few seasons ago, and he’s only 26. I suppose that’s proof that form really matters when selling.
Scott Forbes was another homegrown player who was never going to quite be good enough. A couple years ago he was my biggest hope for an academy player that might make the first team. We outpaced his potential, unfortunately. I shipped him off to Scotland for a fee that should reach 5.5m.
Eddy Laenan joined us for 1.7m in 2024. He went on loan for a couple seasons, and he’s now off to Blackburn Rovers for 10m spread over three years. He isn’t a bad player, but once again he’s not the level I feel like we need if we’re going to compete at the top of the Premier League.
Kevin Lacroix was another nearly-wonderkid that didn’t quite pan out. He joined us for 2.3m in 2024, and three years on he’s only made 12 appearances in our first team. I had hoped that he’d turn into a good fullback, but the 5 star potential in 2024 has turned into 3 star potential in 2027 and only 2 star current ability. He’s much worse than Neco and Victor Fernandez, and only his crossing separates him from our backup centerback Jordan Carlin. I was hoping to get about 10m for him earlier in the window, but I’ve settled for 6m and sent him to Sheffield Wednesday, where he’ll likely do a fine job in the Championship.
Huh. I don’t recall ever seeing this before. With only 1 star potential ability, I can’t say I really mind, either.
And then the big one.
I don’t like this, but he had 1 year left on his contract and he had no interest in signing a new deal. I managed to negotiate City to 44m, but I feel like it should have been 60+. Most of the money will be paid installments, which is pretty typical for my outgoing deals. I don’t need the money today, and I’d rather have more money over the longer-term.
Farrell wasn’t happy, either, but he didn’t want to make anything of it. I don’t blame him.
At the end of the day, I could live without Steele. We have Dragic, Goce (the new WB/L signing from last winter who has just arrived with a busted knee), and Nilson on the left. We have Neco and Victor Fernandez on the right. Plus we have multiple centerbacks who can step out wide and play as decent fullbacks if truly needed.
For incoming news, I found us a solid backup keeper in France.
Wilson is pretty decent in general, and he was willing to come in as backup to Adan Tirado. I’ll play him in the cups. He cost 1.7m, and he has excellent potential, so I’m feeling pretty pleased with the business. Yeah, I’d like someone with a bit more aerial reach, command of the area, and strength, but he’s by far the best backup we’ve ever had, and a backup keeper was a real position of need.
And then I did this:
Kevin freakin De Bruyne was released on a free, and I picked him up. He wasn’t exactly cheap with 83k a week wages plus a 1.1m in loyalty bonus, but it’s a 1 season deal, and I thought having an actual Professional midfielder around to mentor some of these wonderkids would be a good plan. He can play in the Conference League and just stand around as an Enganche until we need him to take set pieces.
Already putting the man to work.
Our first match of the season was away at Liverpool. I didn’t expect much from what was probably the most difficult match we’ll face over the next 10 months, but it was actually the best time to face them. My squad should have better cohesion than theirs given our superior pre-season compared to the computer.
We won 4-3.
Not gonna lie, I thought maybe this could be our season. Perhaps we were finally turning the corner and catching up to the big boys. We immediately drew to Bournemouth at home and lost away at Wolves. We looked fine in both matches, and were honestly much better against Wolves, but we continued to gift other teams easy goals.
At this point, I decided that we needed someone else in the center of the park that could help control matches. (Or maybe I went stress-shopping; you decide.) I found this lad in Argentina, and put in a bid.
He’s quick, he’s agile, he’s strong. He also tackles well and has decent marking and passing. I don’t love that Fickle personality, but it was easily the best option of players that would consider us. (Man City had two superior players, but they wouldn’t return my calls.)
I also asked Nicolas Bacolla to put in a good word for us.
Uh huh. We’ll see, dude.
He signed. I nearly wrote “of course,” but we’ve lost out on far too many transfers. Claudio makes 11 native Spanish speakers in the first team. I need to spend some quality time with DuoLingo.
Matias Martin–who I would still love to come around and be part of the team–decided to pull a Harry Kane and skip training.
Unlike Spurs, we fined him. I shipped him off to Bayer Leverkusen on deadline day in a loan deal that paid us a fraction of his salary, but will see him play plenty of football and hopefully come back next summer a better player and ready to be part of our squad. We’re down to 10 native Spanish speakers.🙂
Gaston Araujo, our problem child from last summer, did actually come around and ask to be taken off the transfer list.
He’s good enough that he’ll get minutes this season, in the Conference League, if nothing else. He may get sold next summer, but it’ll be for a lot more than the 1.8m valuation he has currently.
We won our qualification matches for the Conference League, and Harrison Jackson finally scored a goal.
TWENTY-TWO matches without scoring. Holy hell. I should probably sell him. (I tried but he wouldn’t accept a contract at Blackburn, and I wasn’t willing to pay his wages to send him to Salzburg. He ended up going to Legia on loan.)
Our last match of August was at West Ham, and I setup more defensively than usual, including marking Myron Boadu out of the match. It was dread, horrific football. The Scottish Mistake scored on a 22 meter curler in the first half to give us a slender lead, but former transfer target Geovane leveled late in the second half on a free kick. Just as I thought we’d take away a draw (and I was going to be happy with a draw, mind you), Neco put in a cross from a throw-in and Ignacio Escalante–on for an injured Idah–headed in the winner at 90+5.
Our financials at the beginning of September were as good as ever.
We spent 100m quid on players, and we ended up down 13m from where we started the summer. Much of the outgoing transfer spending is structured over time. In the last 14 months we spent 110m and made 157m (including the structured deals) for a net profit of 47m. If you subtract Adam Steel, who I would have preferred to keep, we were pretty much dead even.
August results were middling.
A famous victory at Anfield, some horrific dropped points, and a scrappy win at West Ham.
In what seems to forever be the case, we found ourselves in 7th place.
I was pretty down on the save at the end of last season. I’m in a slightly better place now. The 7th place isn’t helping, but the chance to win a decent trophy in the Conference League is. If we can get on a good run in the Premier League, I’ll start to get excited again.
Our lives were upended, along with the rest of the world, in March 2020. A year and a half into our big adventure of leaving Missouri for the UK, our plans of cavorting around London and dashing off to Europe were thwarted. With us all stuck at home, I cooked more than ever. I also learned to bake my own bread. After a few months of being entirely sedentary and eating lots of good food, I had an acute realization that I had to get more exercise. (See my post last summer about a trip to Accident & Emergency (American translation: the ER).)
At first I tried cycling. Carissa and I rode around the borough a bit, including a trip up to Kew to see the new Brentford Community Stadium. I realized, though, that cycling is both time-consuming and expensive. It also isn’t that great at helping prepare a body for the only exercise I knew I really enjoyed: playing football (soccer).
After years of incomprehension about why people would possibly do it, I laced up my shoes and went out for a run. See, my joke had been that I only believed in running if there was a ball, frisbee, or the police involved. The first run was two miles, and I hated it.
I went out again two days later.
Somewhere around run number four or five, it started to suck less. After about three weeks, I was actually enjoying it. I chatted with a friend who was running long road races in the US (hey, Carey!), and he gave me some advice and suggested some books to read. Somewhere in that first month, I saw a signup for the Kew Gardens 10k. Running 10 consecutive kilometers seemed like a stretch, but I enjoy a challenge, and one of my coworkers (hi, Matt!) encouraged me to try it. When I mentioned it to Carissa, she was eager to join me, so we both signed up.
I found a running plan online and set to work. Along the way, I decided to replace my old, battered Adidas running shoes, and after reading “Born to Run,” I went for some minimalist shoes. Cue my first running injury. I didn’t realize that you need to shift from padded shoes to minimalist shoes gradually, and I especially didn’t appreciate what running with a zero drop from heel to toe would do to my achilles tendon. I lost a few weeks to achilles rehabilitation (so many eccentric heel drops!), but I was in good enough shape to run the 10k in September.
It was a blast. Hard, but fun. I was doing 6 mile runs prior to the race, and on race day I went out and pushed myself harder than I had since I was playing soccer in high school. I finished the race in 55:59, which wasn’t exactly fast, but it was faster than Carissa, and that was what really mattered.
After the race, I kept running. English autumns are mild, and I cruised through October and November. I looked at the race calendars for the London area, and I set my sights on a half-marathon at Hampton Court Palace, which is only a few miles from us. I found a new training plan, and set to work.
The training plan lasted about three weeks. In early December my second bit of trouble hit. I started to get pain in my knee. I first noticed it out on a long run where the first four or so miles were fine, and it gradually grew worse until around mile seven. I had to stop and walk home. I rested a few days, everything felt fine in the house, so I went for another run. About a mile into it, I felt mild pain. A half mile later, and it was excruciating. Some internet research made me think I was suffering IT band syndrome, so I was back to rehab. Amy Winehouse would not have approved. (This routine from Strength Running worked really well.)
After about a month of knee and hip work, I was back out on the road in January. English winters are mild, but they’re dark. And wet. Working from home was convenient because I could watch for a dry part of the day, block an hour from work, and dash out the door. This kept me going until March when the light started to improve. Unfortunately, with the UK in another covid lockdown, the half-marathon was moved from April to September, which was probably for the best for me. Fortunately, the lockdown was relaxing in stages, so I was able to sign up for another 10k at Kew in May.
I adjusted my running routine in the spring. I added lunges and leg swings to my pre-run warmup. I kept doing my hip and glute work once a week or so. I made sure to foam roll and stretch after each run.
I went into my second Kew 10k, and I felt good. Carissa ran it with me again, and this time I was ready. My goal was sub-50 minutes. My stretch goal was sub-48, and I thought I had a chance at it after seeing how my interval training went in April. I finished in 47:45. I was over the moon. (Yes, I beat Carissa again; she has long-term knee problems and can’t push as hard as I can. Naturally, I taunted her about beating her a second time.)
I set my sights on the Hampton Court Palace half-marathon, but I also signed up for another 10k in August.
In addition to running, I started playing football again. I was fitter and lighter than ever, and I went from being one of the weakest players in the group to one of–I don’t want to say better players, but I’ll at least say that I didn’t feel as if I was embarrassing the entire United States when I stepped on the pitch.
In early June injury struck again. This time it was a recurrence of an old injury from Missouri: busted ribs. Playing indoor soccer in Missouri involved a few untimely collisions with other players and the wall, and one of those cracked a rib on my left side. I missed a month of playing, and it healed, but another hard blow at 7-a-side this past June took me out of commission for a few weeks. Things healed with time, but my half-marathon training plan was destroyed. I kept running, but without as much structure or volume.
The Spitfire 10k is a fundraiser for the RAF Museum, and I ran it in late August. I finished in 51:31 minutes, right in between my previous two races. I felt tired. And heavy. And slow. The lack of structure to my training didn’t feel as obvious on my long, easy runs, but I really felt it on race day.
The first two injuries were my fault. I should have done more research before changing shoes. I also should have been more careful about increasing my volume after the first Kew 10k. The rib injury, though, was more of a freak accident. I could quit playing football, but I enjoy it too much to walk away because I might run a few minutes slower in a race.
I had a two-week gap between races, and I was determined to improve on my Spitfire time. The course at Kew Gardens is a bit more twisty, but it’s one I know well.
Carissa and I both ran it in early September. With a cool, cloudy morning and no traffic exhaust filling my lungs, I was ready to run. Going in, my stretch goal was to set a new personal best (beating 47:45), my primary goal was to break 50 minutes, and my tertiary goal was to improve on my Spitfire time of 51:37.
People like Kew Gardens. No, people love Kew Gardens. It’s one of the prettiest places in London, and worth a day out even if there’s no race. And it was packed. Over 2000 people turned up. The organizers had people in waves, but they were by bib number rather than expected finish time. This meant significant crowding near the start, and with the first few kilometers being so narrow and windy, it was hard to settle into a rhythm. I probably lost 30 seconds to a minute fighting the crowd. Not that it really mattered. My fitness wasn’t quite as good as it was in May, and I don’t have a great feel for how to pace myself yet. Those were much larger contributors to missing my stretch goal, but I was reasonably pleased to finish in under 50 minutes at 49:21.
Carissa, unfortunately, injured her knee around the eight-kilometer mark. She somehow limped to the finish line, but really struggled after that. We walked–very slowly–out to Kew Green and caught a cab home. The good news is that she felt better the next day and is now working on her own rehab routine.
My final race of the year was the big one. The Hampton Court Palace Half-marathon. Hampton Court Palace is in the southern part of the borough, about four miles from us. I jog through the adjacent park (Bushy Park) periodically, and I was excited to have a race through the park and along the Thames.
Going into the race my goals were to finish under 2:00:00 as the main goal, under 2:15:00 as the B goal, and simply to finish without injury as the C goal. The race calculators said I should be able to finish in under 1:50:00, but I was far from convinced.
Sunday morning was cloudy and cool, and the crowd was about the same size as the Kew 10k at 2000 people. I felt undertrained, and wasn’t sure how things were going to go, but I went out at about an 8:40 pace, and it felt easy. I held close to it throughout the race, with a few dips here and there. Around the 9-mile mark, I was telling myself that I was almost finished, under 1/3 of the race to go. At about the 11-mile mark things started to hurt, and I was once again wondering why sane people would go running if they weren’t getting paid to do it. I remembered, though, that your body lies to you. It’s lazy. It wants sourdough and wine and Football Manager. I kept going. Maybe not as fast as I did at the start, but at a pace I was sure would get to the finish line under two hours.
Ultimately, I finished in 1:55:07. I stopped jogging for about 30 meters to drink a half bottle of water, and that probably cost me the 8 seconds I needed to break 1:55. You could also say that I could have pushed just a little harder at pretty much any point in the race, and that would have been true, too. It’s a good result and one that I’m sure I can beat in the future if I can string together a few months of injury-free training.
Lessons learned over the last year:
Don’t ramp up pace or volume too fast; the guidance I’ve found is to only add 10% volume per week and to only run 20% of your miles near a race pace
Ease yourself into any new shoes
Take the time for preventative maintenance with dynamic stretching before each run and static stretching after
Don’t be a slave to the training plan; take breaks when you start to feel worn down
From here, I plan to keep running. I have my sights set on a marathon next year. The Richmond Marathon is organized by the same people who organize the Kew 10k, and it’s scheduled for 11 September 2022. It’s the flattest marathon in London, run all along the Thames path from Kew Gardens down to Kingston and back. I know the course, and I know I can handle up to 15 miles, and I have plenty of time to prepare.
I don’t need to be fast. The only race I’m really trying to win is against congestive heart failure and myocardial infarction. That is the longest race, and I have miles to go before the end is in sight. Many, many miles, hopefully.
With us limping a bit through the festive season, I tried some more tactical tweaks in January.
I moved us back to the 4231 when we faced Derby at home. The thinking was that we had been in the 3 at the back for a while, and it would be helpful to show a different look to other managers and limit their ability to adapt to us. It also gave us a chance to showcase Freddy Baez at right wing, and he delivered with two goals and an 8.6 rating.
I seriously love it when a tactical change so clearly pays dividends. That was with Fede Cordero out injured, too.
West Ham came to visit, and knowing how strong they were, I used the 3 at the back. Myron Boadu torched us for 3 goals and we mustered only 1 in response. Fede Cordero was nearly ready to return to practice, and we desperately needed him.
Once again, I responded to a poor performance by going wonderkid shopping. I found one.
Haroldo is Brazilian, which meant I had to cough up 13.5m to sign him rather than the 7m I paid for Fede, but still far less than the 33.5m for Kevin Beck Hebo. (One of these days I’ll list out the pricing tiers for wonderkids.)
He’s physically better than Fede in nearly every category. He’s technically worse in nearly every category. He’s a year older than Fede, but has great potential. My hope is that between Haroldo, Fede, and Kevin, we have a truly world-class front line. Adam Idah is good enough to contribute there, and maybe Jhonny Palacios or Ignacio Escalante get there. The guys behind them are in trouble. Harrison Jackson, Scott Forbes, and Brad Laws have to be getting nervous.
Wait. Are you f***ing kidding me?
West Ham??? No one was after him until we made a bid. Unbelievable. Harrison, you live to play another day. For now.
Huh. Dan moved to the UAE, and West Brom turned a profit on him. Good for him. Good for them. I hope it works out for all parties.
My scouts, by very cleverly watching Real Madrid matches, have turned up probably the best striker in the world. I wish he’d even consider us. He won’t. I asked his agent.
Kouyate probably isn’t the second-best striker in the world, but he may very well be soon. I’ve been tracking him the last couple seasons. Lyon have so many great players, and they don’t want to sell any of them to me.
Not that their players even want to join, either.
The scouts have also turned up an Argentine wonderkid right back, but he is so poor in attack I’m not sure I have a place for him. I already have Dragic and Steele, who are similar players.
I kinda want to buy him, but I dunno. It could be an investment, I guess?
In match news, we went to Spurs in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup and scraped by with a 2-3 loss. In the return fixture, we scored in the 2nd minute to make things even, but Spurs grabbed a goal just before halftime to take the lead. Down a goal in the last 10 minutes, I adjusted us to a Very Attacking mentality and upped a bunch of roles to be more attack-minded. Fede Cordero delivered in the 89th minute. Even 4-4 on aggregate at fulltime, we went to a shootout, where Idah missed the first kick. The rest of our players made theirs, and…
We’re going to our third Carabao Cup final in a row, where we’ll face Leicester. They’ve been in poor form, but progressed past Leeds after both semi-final legs finished 0-0 and they won the shootout.
We’ll never get a better chance at winning it and sneaking into Europe.
Our own January results were middling. (Much like the last 2.5 seasons.)
The draw at Chelsea was a good one. Hard-fought and well-earned. Crushing Derby was a joy, of course. West Ham have become my nemesis. Not just that they keep beating us, but that they keep taking “our” players in Ilic and Haroldo. We had a good win against Huddersfield, the cup matches, and a bore draw at Crystal Palace. The Palace match was particularly rubbish. We started with the 343 but with a semi-rotated side, we couldn’t keep possession or create much threat. I adjusted to the 4231 in the second half and made some subs, which was enough to give us the upper hand, but not so much that we were able to get a second goal to win it.
As January wound down, we saw a meaningful departure on deadline day.
Ivan wasn’t making it on the pitch very often, and when Blackburn came in with an offer for near his 5m value, I negotiated it up to 7m and let him leave. He was a good player for us for a few years, and I’ll miss him as a mentor, but it was time for him to move to a club nearer his level. Safe travels, Ivan. Don’t drink all the whiskey at once.
It’s been a while since I gave a financial update. We’re rich still. We have a ridiculous amount of transfer funds. I’m trying to spend it. I am. I promise. It’s still a struggle to get the players that will make us better given our reputation.
Shortly after the transfer window closed a few of the lads came by my office with some concerns about our depth at centerback. I checked my (multiple) shortlists, and I found an outstanding Belgian wonderkid centerback who was willing to join us.
Nathan profiles as our best centerback the day he joins the club. He passes the eye test, too. Excellent physical attributes, solid mental and technical attributes, and a ton of potential to get even better. He cost 41.5m, which is our new record transfer. We have money, and I’ve struggled to spend it, so I have no regrets. He’s on 90k per week as a star player. Wage inflation is real.
Update: Bloody West Ham came in ag– Just kidding! We really got him. Sometimes things work the way I planned.
A brilliant away win at Spurs put us back into European contention. Fede scored an amazing opener after a well-worked team play that ended up with the ball being played back to him about 20 yards from goal. He stuck it in the top bin with his first touch.
Huh, this was the first time I’ve seen this happen.
Good for Harrison. I’m pleased that he felt comfortable enough at the club to make such an announcement.
That’s a nice little note that Sports Interactive added for Harrison. Well done, SI.
This was great team news:
This was terrible news:
Two injured centerbacks. Jordan went down just before the Burnley match. Finley was injured in the middle of it. We only have four senior centerbacks at the club. Looks like McCrorie is going to be stepping in.
The worst part of the Finley Burns injury was that our next match was the Carabao Cup final. Our white whale. Leicester were in 18th place at the time the match kicked off. We were in 7th. We have had good luck against them. I started with the 343 with McCrorie at centerback. It gives me the option to easily switch to 4231 and move him into midfield.
We started in the 343, but weren’t generating much offense, so I moved to the 4231 in the second half. Lee “the Scottish Mistake” Farrell scored a scrappy goal after a melee in the Leicester penalty area. Fede added a classy finish from a counter-attack ten minutes later. Leicester had a couple good opportunities, including a Joao Pedro 1 on 1 with Adan Tirado, but Joao plonked his shot off the far post and Felipe Augusto swooped in to clear it to safety. The whistle blew for fulltime and…
We did it! We’re going to Europe!
Fede was excellent again. He’s one of those players you just love to see improve season over season.
Am I actually an icon?
I don’t remember that clause. I also don’t begrudge him a single pence of it.
Up the Black Cats!
Matches ticked along with progress in the FA Cup, which was a welcome change, but poor form in the league.
Three consecutive 1-2 losses at Everton, at Norwich and vs Aston Villa sapped my will to live. Our mediocre youth intake didn’t help.
Maybe one of those kids will turn out to be a decent Premier League calibre player in five years, but I doubt it.
My wonderkid hunting continued, and I’ve filled 5 of my 6 slots for next season.
Martin isn’t as quick as I’d really like in a striker, but he’s already at 15 strength and 17 jumping at 18 years old. Couple that with his work rate, decisions, finishing, and first touch, and I think he’ll be a great complement to Fede Cordero. He set us back 9m.
Maybe bringing in a 4th (what was I thinking?) striker in the summer is a mistake. Maybe. But Jaroslav cost me 57k in compensation for his free transfer.
Our incoming transfers are
Nathan D’Haene – DC – 41m
Goce Sterjovksi – DL – 0m (he’s actually 22)
Kevin Beck Hebo – AMR/AMC/ST – 33.5m
Jhonny Palacios – AMR/AMC/ST – 725k (joins in January 2029)
Martin Ramirez – AMR/AML/ST – 9m
Jaroslav Holub – ST – 57k
That covers 5 of my 6 foreign youth transfers. I’ll hold onto the final slot to see if anyone pops up that I just cannot live without. (I actually thought it was all 6 until I noticed Goce’s age. Whew.)
I’ll have to have a long look at these guys plus my current squad in June and decide who stays at the club, who goes on loan, and who gets sold.
Our schedule for April isn’t bad. Southampton, Wolves, Leicester, Spurs (FA Cup Semi), and Leeds. May is a horror show. Arsenal (at home), Liverpool (at home), and Man City (away).
The good news is that we’re already locked in for the Europa Conference League. We could very possibly make it into the Europa League via the FA Cup. Making it to the Europa League via 6th place is a tall order and not one I’m sure we can handle without fantastic form over the next 7 league matches. Form that has eluded us for most of the season.
The Southampton match went south after 17 seconds when the first Saints cross of the game resulted in a free header and a goal. Was Vlad Dragic awake? Does he want to be part of our football club? Who the f*** knows. Fede Cordero had the ball in the net on 20 minutes, but it was called back for offsides. Idah leveled things for us 6 minutes later after a lovely dink over the fullback from Adam Steele (who is refusing to extend his contract). Fede scored another that counted 1 minute after that via a lovely throughball from the Scottish Mistake, only for the defense to utterly shit the bed 1 minute after that and give up a goal in almost exactly the same manner. After 32 minutes Southampton had 3 shots on target and their third goal of the day, courtesy of another horrific piece of defending that involved Liam Delap running free between our centerbacks. Forget Sandstorm; our team is now entering the pitch to Yakety Sax for the rest of the season. The whole point of running a 343 is the defensive solidity. Which did work out in the second half, but we couldn’t score again and dropped 3 points from a winnable match.
For the Wolves match I went back to the 4231, and I used more attack-minded fullbacks with Neco on the right and Nilson on the left. Adam Idah bagged a hat trick, Ignacio Escalante added an extra, and Wolves’ consolation goal was nowhere near enough to affect the result. Good win. Good three points.
Leicester came to the Stadium of Light, and it was as if half their squad was already in the Maldives. We scored from a Felipe Augusto header on a free kick at 45+3, and I was a bit worried in the second half when we kept wasting chances, but Fede sealed the win with a nice finish on 71 minutes.
A simple, professional 2-0 home victory was just what everyone needed to reduce the tension in the locker room before our trip to Wembley to face Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final.
I’ve given the best striker of my seven-year tenure a massive wage hike.
Fede signed a deal for the next 5 years, though it included a 100m release clause. He’s outstanding, and it might actually get activated, but it’s an increase from his previous 77m clause.
We had a couple defensive suspensions going into the FA Cup semi-final vs Spurs, so I rolled with the 4231. We gave up a poor penalty midway through the first half, but Adam Idah leveled via a rocket to the top corner. We went into halftime even pretty much across the board: goals, shots (3 to 2), shots on target (2 each), even possession at 49-51. Enric put us up 2-1 on 53 minutes after the simplest throw-in routine. Dragic threw to Idah, who played it right back to him. Dragic crossed, and Enric found the ball from a crowd of three Sunderland players and finished crisply at the far post. Our advantage held until the 73rd minute when Spurs scored on a near-post corner routine that looked like they stole it from us (who stole it from Zealand and the Football Manager Show). Again, things were pretty even, and we went into extra time with the score at 2-2. At 94 minutes Fede received a deep cross from Neco, rounded the defender, and laid the ball into Idah’s path for a tap-in. Somehow Nenad Puric managed to give the ball away on a freekick IN OUR OWN HALF and leave Adan Tirado more work to do than he could manage, and Spurs leveled things for the third time on the day. I swear to the heavens, our defenders live to give me ulcers. At 119:30, Spurs took their first lead of the day. A blocked shot rebounded to their midfield, the ball was played back through one-touch, and Lee Adebowale (regen winger with ridiculous pace) was the quickest person to the ball. Of all the goals we conceded on the day, that was the one that was the least-bad.
I couldn’t justifiably feel that we were robbed, but the loss left a real sour taste. We were so close, and the last goal came in the dying moments when I was expecting us to lose on penalties instead.
Three days later we were off to Leeds. We were not at 100%, but my first choice 11 does so much better than the rotated side, that I went with some players that weren’t 100%. The match was a balancing act of fatigue and quality, helped considerably by Leeds having a fairly shambolic day and gifting us an own-goal and couple defensive errors that we turned into goals. We won without too much trouble or worry.
At the end of April, before the horror run-in, the table looked like this.
The Europa League was tantalizingly close. The Champion’s League was completely out of reach (again). And these were the next three matches.
Arsenal came to Sunderland in the driving rain. At the end the scoreboard read Sunderland 2 – 0 Visitors, and a glorious rainbow stretched from the Stadium of Light into the North Sea.
We played ’em off the park.
Get rich, kid. You’ve earned it.
Second-place Liverpool at home, and I rolled out the attacking 4231. It felt like juggling dynamite, but you can’t stop using a tactic that’s still working, right? We generated more shots, more shots on target, more xG, and we lost 0-2. For all the work I’ve done to increase quality throughout the squad, we are still undeniably inferior to Liverpool.
Going into the final day, we were in 8th place, but 3 behind Man City, Everton, and Aston Villa.
Any chance at the Europa League had to involve a win, but we did have goal difference working for us.
The assumption was that we beat City. That would put us in 5th before other results. Everton needed a result at Derby to stay ahead. Villa needed a result at Leicester. Both Everton and Villa had far easier opponents. My feeling going in was that this was going to be like our relegation season. We’d win dramatically, but only get to 7th because Everton and Villa would each manage at least one point to stay ahead of us.
I went back to our 343 for City.
We had to win, but we also had to stay tight at the back if we were going to have a chance. The 4231 was clearly not going to be enough if the Liverpool result was anything to go by, but I knew I could make adjustments as needed by shifting to the 4231 with Baez moving up, Neco going to the right side, and Puric sliding out to the left. And yes, I was playing Baez out of position. He’s too good to not have him on the pitch.
It didn’t work. We were down 2 within 17 minutes. We went right back to the 4231, and Freddy Baez had us a goal 10 minutes later to make it City 2 – 1 Sunderland. Freddy scored a wonderstrike that may end up as Premier League goal of the season, but City scored 3 more and we lost, badly. I’m so tired of matches where there’s such a huge gulf in quality.
We have regressed to 9th and have fewer points than last season.
I’m not sure what I’m going to do from here. We have some more good signings coming, including a top class centerback, an upgraded WB/L, and multiple striker options who will push Adam Idah for his spot alongside Fede. We’re also in Europe next season, even if it is the Europa Conference League.
I won’t lie, though. I’m getting tired of this save. It feels as if we’re treading water from season to season, making the best improvements to the squad that we can afford and who will sign for us, but it all feels so small. So incremental.
I can’t quit with our first chance in Europe next season, though, can I? So I think I have at least one more in me. I have some nearly-wonderkids to sell, a couple legit wonderkids that are angry about stupid stuff, and Adam Steele who still won’t sign a new contract. If I can make good money from them, add that to the 112m war chest Kyril has offered, and bring in 1 or 2 quality starters, maybe we really can have a good run next season. (We’ll finish 7th and I’ll be done with this save, most likely.)