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A Year+ of Running: A Retrospective

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).)

The wicker dragon at Hampton Court Palace

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).

Richmond Hill and the Thames

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.

A greenhouse at Kew Gardens

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 path at Bushy Park

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.

Sculpture at Kew Gardens

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 Supermarine Spitfire

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.

Look at those turns!

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.

The moat at Hampton Court Palace

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.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 7, Part 2

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

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?

Yes, indeed.

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.)

See you next week, footy nerds.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 7, Part 1

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

One of these seasons we’ll get a good run of form and not make me want to pull my hair out by mid-October. This was not that season.

A spotty start in August turned into an undefeated September, but “undefeated” meant three consecutive draws in the league. 

I went back to tinkering with my tactics and ended up with this.

The thinking was that we had 3 legitimately good centerbacks in Augusto, Puric, and Burns, plus a very good Carlin for cover. Our wingbacks were not as strong, but we were in good shape in midfield and up top.

We lost at Old Trafford 2-3, but played well.  We drew at home to Everton, followed by two convincing victories against Burnley and Norwich. It felt as if things were working.

November really irritated me, though. We dominated Wolves and only managed to find the net once, but fortunately it was all we needed. An ugly 2-4 loss to Villa was bad enough, but losing at home to Southampton was worse.

I tweaked things a little midway through our match at (frankly terrible) Leicester.

These changes helped us turn things around after a tepid first half.

Look at that xG. Look at those Fede Cordero goals.

Our form after Leicester wasn’t bad, necessarily. A narrow loss at Arsenal wasn’t upsetting. They’re legit stacked in this save. A famous 5-1 win over Liverpool in the Carabao Cup was probably the high point of our season. We lost at home to City, drew to Liverpool in the league, and then had an away loss to Blackburn in which we scored early, looked good, and gave up two thunderbastards to Moises Caicedo.

We’re in a place where I feel like our talent level has gone up, but we’re getting the same kinds of results as we were two years ago.

Personnel news was more of what you’d expect. (Maybe that’s the problem?)

Glad to see our investment paying off already… We will, at some point, get a good youth intake. That point is not this season.

Since I didn’t have a good youth intake, I went shopping. Check out this 700k bargain.

He’ll be joining us in January 2028 (13 months away). He already has good pace, good agility, good dribbling, and a good first touch. And flair. And teamwork. And work rate. And composure! Other than some mediocre finishing, he looks great right now.  My scouts could be pulling a Pure Magic on me, but with his current level of ability I am 100% sure I could flip him in the summer of 2028 for a few million.

This lad is Danish, which means I had to pay a premium. A big premium. 33m over three years big.

But once again, look at him! I’d like him to be just a bit faster, but he’s so very nearly what I want in a forward.

Very comparable to Fede Cordero.

Yeah, yeah, Fede is better. Fede is better than everyone. But it’s really close.

The better comparison might be Enric, who he would also compete with for our AMC spot. Enric is quicker, but Kevin has slightly better passing and work rate.
Unfortunately, I can’t sign him in January, so he’ll be arriving next summer. (Because, get this, I let my DoF sign kids for the U23s, and he snuck a foreign player past me, which still counts for the senior team’s limit of 6! That will not be happening again.)

Since I’m trying to make 3 at the back work, I picked up a Bosman signing at left wingback.

Goce will arrive in July. His best comparison is probably Vlad Dragic.

They both can play wingback, but Vlad offers excellent defensive capabilities while Goce offers better attacking capabilities.

Red Star also had an excellent AMR/ST that was available for free in the summer, but he chose Manchester City instead of us.

At the end of December we were just over the halfway point in the season.

The European places aren’t far away, but we really needed to string together some decent runs of form if we were going to get there and stay there. We’re good enough at our best, but not quite as consistent as we need to be.

We’ll break here. See you next week, footy nerds.

Update: Part 2 is now posted

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 7, Summer Transfer Window

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

Kyril came ’round with his expectations for the season.

They’re starting to align with reality, which makes it harder and harder for me to overachieve. Midtable is the right goal. We might manage to sneak into Europe. I don’t see us cracking the top 4.

The game now gives you an option to tap up a player by having one of his international teammates speak to him. I didn’t get a screenshot of the interaction, but I asked Vlad Dragic to talk to his international centerback teammate, Nenad Puric, which he readily agreed to do.

Supposedly Vlad’s sales pitch didn’t work, but either it (or the money) did, and we got our guy.

There are so many great players coming out of Serbia that it’s ridiculous. Nenad signed as an Important Player, which means he needs lots of minutes to stay happy. I now have four very good (young) centerbacks, so I’ll rotate him around with Burns, Augusto, and Carlin. He’s not as much of a leaper as my other guys, but he’s fast and has excellent agility. He’ll be a great complement to enable our high defensive line. The fact that he’s left footed is a bonus. He’ll rotate on the left with Augusto while Burns and Carlin rotate on the right.

Nenad is my 4th of 6 possible U21 international signings. (The other three are at the top of the last installment since I completed their deals in January, though our new Spanish rightback, Victor Fernandez, did his ACL in April and is out for another two months.)

I didn’t really need another hotshit midfielder, but if you’ve been reading this for a while, you know that I just can’t resist a good wonderkid.

Matias Martin is a legit wonderkid, rated at 5 star potential. His passing, first touch, flair, and balance are all excellent, and he’s pretty good across the board.

He profiles well against Farrell.

And Ramirez.

And better than Araujo, who is still unhappy I didn’t sign someone for him to settle in at the club and may have to leave because of it.

Speaking of Araujo, the “sign a player to help me settle” promise has to be the worst promise in the game. I had no idea who he wanted to help him settle. He had no favored personnel. I had multiple Argentines already at the club. I asked him who he could suggest we sign, and he had no ideas. Maybe I just needed any new Argentine? It would be helpful if the game provided a bit more guidance on who qualifies. The worst part is that he’s been with us a year, and he’s still angry about it. Like, dude. C’mon.

He’s not leaving for 10m. I actually had an offer for 20m in January, and the board refused to take it.

This shot is from early June, and it gives a good view of loan players at the beginning of the transfer window.

The most interesting area for me in terms of transfers is the progress. We have a bunch of guys who just haven’t been progressing. Schmitz, Puric (no surprise there at this point), Belafonte, Bednar, Simon, Knight, Forbes, and Jensen all seem stagnant. A few still have potential and I’ll give them another loan to develop further. Others are 3 stars at best, and I’ll sell if I can get a decent fee.

The press came in with odds on best young player of the year.

I’m gonna take that as a vote of confidence. Farrell and Steele are 20 and 21, respectively, and they both cost about 15m. Both are developing really well, and I have high hopes that they’ll be key players to help us qualify for Europe.

I was finally able to find a buyer for Vlad Puric that he would accept. He left us as about the same player as he joined us.

All I could fetch was 4.7m from Bristol City, but he only cost 1.3m. We probably broke even when you consider his wages. Given the profit, I’m not sure you can really count him as a failure, but I feel like he was a failure.

Michal never developed any pace or crossing ability, and he’s only mediocre on defense. And yet, Almeria paid me 9.75m (in installments) for him.

Lars has good pace and dribbling with decent passing and crossing, but he wasn’t developing well and I couldn’t realistically see him in our first team pretty much ever. I sold him to AC Milan for 8.25m in installments.

I don’t know what happened to Ruben’s face, but he’s gone on loan to Charlton with an optional future fee of 1.3m.

Arnaut Danjuma came into the transfer window as a 29-year-old squad player whose minutes were going to go to younger, better players in the next season. I wanted to move him on, hopefully for something in the region of the 30m offers I was getting a year ago. The transfer turned into an utter nightmare. He was nominally worth 15m, but I struggled to get offers for more than 7.5 early in the window. Then he came into the office complaining about me selling him. I was willing to go down to about 20m, but he felt that was too high and started texting his mates. Finally, after half the squad backed him, I managed to get some offers for 10m and 8m from France and Germany. His bloody agent came in asking for a payoff! I tried to negotiate the first deal, and the agent terminated negotiations. I agreed to the others.

He did eventually leave for Saint-Etienne for 10m and a 400k payoff. We lost another 500k in solidarity payments, but we saved 2.5m in wages and didn’t have to let him leave on a free. The business was bad enough, but our morale tanked pretty hard. Fortunately, he left in mid-July, so we still had time to win some friendlies to get morale back to a decent level.

I had high hopes for Calum Knight, but he never developed the way I hoped.

He was homegrown, and I wanted to be sentimental, but with one year left on his contract and a fairly low ceiling, I sold him for 725k to Stoke. I would have even extended him for a few more years and given him some more loans, but he wouldn’t agree to a new deal after my Director of Football angered his agent somehow.

I attempted to sell Abdallah Sima, but he threw a fit, and after the fiasco with Danjuma, I agreed to let him stay.

We do, oddly, have too many promising players at the club. I’ve sent a few out on paying loans.

Kevin went off to France to get some game time with Toulouse. He’ll likely be sold when he comes back next summer. Hopefully, he improves while he’s away; those orange arrows are not encouraging, but he just left a few days before this screenshot, so he hasn’t had any matches yet.

Marcus Wendel was the random free signing we picked up. He’s looking like he could be a good midfield destroyer, so he’s off to get more experience and develop further.

Araujo was still unhappy about being sold, but I can’t get the price for him that I want (40m+) yet, so he’s off on loan to develop further and be someone else’s problem. He could turn out to be excellent, but he’s my fifth-best creative midfielder behind Farrell, Martin, Ramirez, and Enric.

Our old pal Obren Cikic is off on loan as well. He’s a weird player. Nominally a winger, but he’s too slow to really be effective. He has decent tackling, so maybe he could play at midfield, but his passing and vision aren’t really good enough. My hope is that he plays a bunch on loan and we can sell him for 25-30m next summer.

Watford made us a 37.5m offer for Jordan Carlin. He’s still in my first-team plans, so I declined it. It definitely makes me wonder if I’ll regret it in a year like I did Danjuma. Fact was, I needed Arnaut at the time. The wonderkid conveyor belt wasn’t quite as loaded back then.

Going into our first competitive match, my plan was to use the 4231, tweaked for our new players. Fede Cordero, Freddy Baez, and Matias Martin look to be of such quality that they’ll slot straight into the first team.

Fede is ridiculous. I’ve been wanting a good striker, and well, here he is. Four stars at advanced forward, and still plenty of room to improve. He looks as if he could be an incredible complete forward in the near future.

Freddy looks to be just as good, but as a right-footed winger going to the byline.

We’ll roll with Idah on the left, cutting inside as an inside forward.

Enric is our first-choice AMC with excellent ability to play on either wing as needed.

The Scottish Mistake will be at the base of our midfield as a CM-S alongside Matias Martin as a DLP-S.

I feel more confident about this year’s squad than any we’ve had so far. The summer signings were nearly all upgrades, and we have decent quality in the spots behind them. The only place I’m legitimately worried about depth is at GK. I’ve had a look at finding a decent backup, but without any real success.

My confidence was shaken in the first two matches. We scored early against Blackburn, and I was feeling as smug as a dog with two bones, but then we just couldn’t get the ball in the net. They scored early in the second half, and we piled on pressure, but it ended in a draw. The Derby match was even worse. We were under the cosh from the 3rd minute when they scored on a corner. We pulled level just before halftime, but couldn’t generate any offense. I thought we’d coast to a draw, which would be bad enough, but Derby scored the winner at 90+2.

I had to rethink our tactic. The rethink was to apply the lessons from last season. A lower line of engagement, forcing the other team wide, and no longer pressuring the opposing keeper.

Results immediately improved, including a glorious first half against Chelsea where we scored three goals before conceding two in the second half. We duly smashed Mansfield and Crystal Palace.

The only worry at the moment is the number of early injuries, but we’ve managed to cope with them. I may need to recall a player or two in January to give us more depth for the second half of the season.

We’re gunning for 6th, hoping for 4th, and wouldn’t turn down a title if Liverpool wanted to collapse.

The table–while basically meaningless this early in the season–says we’re on track.

See you in January, footy nerds.

Update: the next installment is available here

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 6, Part 2

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

I love transfer season. I never stop looking for players, but the hunt goes up to 11 in the summer and in January.

I’ve found us an excellent Colombian winger.

Do we need another player on the right wing? Not really, though his pace is a welcome change to the plodding we have from Bacolla and Cikic right now. I like them both, and they’re both good players, but they’re both slow.

Freddy cost us a staggering 50k. Thousand. Not million. Fifty Thousand Pounds. He was technically a free transfer, but apparently, we had some visa fees or something.

That’s our first confirmed arrival for the summer and the first of six possible under 21 international players.

Victor is a Villareal player with an expiring contract. He will join us on a free transfer and provide an option on the right in rotation with Neco Williams and Adam Steele. We kind of have a crunch there with three players for one spot, but Neco can play at a midfield and Steele can play on the left or at DM. We’ll manage.

Fede Cordero is the next hotshit Argentinian forward to come out of Boca. (We hope he is, anyway.)

He cost a cool 7m to activate his release clause. He profiles as an excellent prospect, but also a player of the present. My scouts think he’d be third on our depth chart if he were at the club today. Kid is only 17! He’s also evidence that I need to run the face updater again soon.

Wait a tick…

That’s better. Fede makes the third of my possible six international U21 signings for next season.

January results were mediocre, so I made yet another round of tactical tweaks, this time modifying our third tactic based on the 4231 that was so successful in the Championship.

Our personnel are good enough now that it’s not suicidal to try this. It actually makes me wish I had Freddy Baez to put on the right, so we’ll have to give that a shot next season.

The tactical change wasn’t enough to hold off 2nd place Arsenal when they came to visit, though a second-half change to the asymmetric formation was even less effective.

I know the cliche is “it’s your tactics, mate,” but it’s also our quality. Here are a few comparisons.

Arsenal’s starting striker is Patson Daka. Our best striker is Adam Idah.

Idah is better in the air, but worse in literally every other category.

Our best winger is debatable, but let’s use Cikic for this.

Cikic is a great jumper, but that’s not a stat you really need in your wingers. Tsygankov is better in the meaningful categories.

Neco is our best attacking fullback. He’s simply outclassed by Tierney.

The numbers are more interesting. Not the score. Ignore the score.

Statistically, we played Arsenal fairly even. Other than goals. Due to injury, we did have our backup keeper playing, so maybe that’s on me for not playing Meggie enough in the autumn that he asked for and received a transfer in January. It’s hard to keep two quality keepers happy at the same time.

We simply have to improve our quality if we’re going to improve our league position, and that’s challenging in this league with so much talent already in on the teams we’re facing. If we can scrape into Europe, that will help.

Moving on…

Don’t tease me, Barca.

We played a two-legged tie against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup semi-final. The first match was away at Arsenal, where we played well but lost 1-2. The second match was at home, where we played well and f***ing crushed them 4-0. (They had their revenge a couple weeks later, as you can see above.)

Our biggest match of the season came on Sunday, March 1, 2026. Sunderland vs Everton at Wembley for (another) chance at our first trophy in our new Premier League era.

I went back and looked at our prior results. We played on Merseyside on 31 January and lost 2-4. We gave up four goals in the first half, including a brace to Juan Manuel Gutierrez. That was with our 4132 that I built for away matches. We played Everton at home on 21 September in a match that ended with a scoreless draw. In that one I used 442 with a wide midfield diamond that I haven’t kept around because it was worthless. In both those matches Everton played three at the back with wingbacks, two central midfielders, a winger on each side, and a striker.

Given our prior results and Everton’s formation, I took a gamble on using our 4231.

My thinking was that this would let us get a player into the hole between Everton’s midfield and defense while matching them out wide. Farrell and McCrorie are set to stay deeper, and I’ve shuffled the BWM to the right to counter the pace and crossing threat from Ghislain Konan, Everton’s attacking leftback.

I told the lads to get their revenge, and we took to the pitch.

Naturally, after all my research, Everton lined-up in a different formation.

I think they feared the mighty Black Cats and felt they had to mirror us.

The first half played out without too many opportunities and no goals. We had four shots with two on target. Everton had two shots with one on target. xG was dead even at 0.29 each. We were dominating possession with 68%, which made me pretty happy. I’d rather have the ball than not, especially when we’re not giving up counter-attacks.

At the hour mark little had changed, other than a horrifically off-target Lee Farrell shot from the edge of the penalty area. I pulled Harrison for Danjuma, and moved Idah to the tip of the spear. Everton immediately counter-attacked down Danjuma’s side, and we were saved from a Gutierrez goal by a narrow (but correct) offside call. At 75 minutes I pulled Araujo for Ramirez, in part because Araujo was on a 6.5 rating, but also because Ramirez is a far superior penalty taker, if things were to go that direction.

The match reached the end of regulation scoreless, though we were marginally the better side in shots and xG, and we were still dominating possession at 63%. I pulled Vlad Dragic from his spot at leftback and put in Adam Steele. Vlad was knackered and I wanted Steele’s slightly better penalty taking.

Everton took a 1-0 lead on 104 minutes through our nemesis Gutierrez. He brought down a long clearance, beat a knackered Finley Burns, and finished low to Tirado’s right. I pulled the ineffective Idah for Abdallah Sima and threw everyone forward. Everton scored again at 120+1 with a Scott McTominay thunderbastard from 25 meters.

Other than Adam Idah’s 6.2 rating, we played generally okay. Not great, obviously, but we moved the ball well, generated some shots, and were not obviously outplayed.  That’s two seasons in a row we’ve lost the Carabao Cup final. I hope that’s just us getting it out of our system before we reach the European stage.
I complain about lack of quality, but we do have some good players in the team that only need more time to develop. John Ramirez is a great example. He has been with us less than a year, but he’s developing as well as any player I’ve ever seen.

He was thinking about asking for a new contract, so I’ve given him one as a squad player. He appears to be very happy with it, and I’m looking forward to seeing his continued improvement.

Our youth intake came in March. It was as rubbish as usual.

I’m not sure why it’s so bad. Our youth setup looks good.

The academy coaching, maybe?

Yeah, looks like that was part of it. I feel pretty dumb. That’s something I should have caught three seasons ago.

Had to go to the board and beg, but I got this done, too.

That should take us from excellent to state of the art.

We secured survival at some point. The board dropped me a note about it.

Let’ s not get ahead of our– actually, f***ing cheer, people! We’re fighting for European qualification, and relegation worries are in our rearview mirror.

With five matches to play we were sitting in 7th place.

With Everton defeating us in the Carabao Cup final, 7th won’t be good enough for European football. We need to gain a point on Manchester United and hold off West Ham. Unfortunately, our run-in is ugly. Worse than ugly. Nigh impossible.

Norwich should be beatable, but we’re not all that good when away. Liverpool is basically impossible. Spurs and Chelsea at home are possible, but we need a measure of luck. City away is basically impossible. We realistically could take 4 out of 15 points and fall to 9th, but we’re unlikely to finish any lower.

We started the run-in by losing Ivan Sunjic for 3-4 weeks to injury. He’s been our rotation DM, giving McCrorie breaks. Not the worst player to lose by any means, but I’d rather have him than not. By the way, we extended Sunjic’s deal for three more years. He’s 29, and I don’t expect to keep him that long, but he’s a useful player and I didn’t want to let him leave for free in June. If I get an offer for him, I’ll let him move to “new challenges.”

We went to Norwich, played like rubbish, and lost 2-1.

Shortly after the Norwich horror show, Felipe Augusto pulled an abdominal muscle in training and went down for two weeks. That ruled him out of the Liverpool and Spurs matches. On the eve of facing Liverpool, Vlad Dragic damaged his foot, taking him out of contention for 11 to 14 days. You might think it was training, but all we were doing was match tactics and match preview.

On the one hand, Liverpool started Max Aarons at rightback, which was slightly better for us than them starting Trent Alexander-Arnold. On the other hand, they started Erling Haaland at striker. Harvey Elliott, playing in Mo Salah’s old position, put the ball in the net on 20 minutes, but it was called back for offside. Somehow, we weathered the storm all the way to halftime. The xG was Liverpool 1.2 – 0.38 Sunderland. Not great! Because I’m a glutton for punishment, and because we were clearly not going to hold out for another 45 minutes, I changed things up at halftime. We switched to our asymmetric formation, and I dropped McCrorie to DM. Haaland scored 6 minutes later. It was ruled out for offside, but Haaland put the ball in the net again on a ridiculous piece of skill where the ball came in from a deep cross on his left and he hit it left-footed into the net. I don’t see how it’s physically possible. The match ended 0-2 with Haaland completing a brace with a late penalty.

I just have zero answers for how we can deal with serial Premier League winners and Champion’s League holders Liverpool at Anfield. We can play them reasonably closely at the Stadium of Light, but on their patch? It’s brutal.

Our second loss in a row left us right where we were before: 7th place with West Ham on our heels and still a point behind United, though they had a game in hand, which they won later in the week.

Spurs were all over us at the Stadium of Light, barely giving us a sniff of the ball. I noticed that Idah, playing as an inside forward on the left, wasn’t doing anything to help out on his side, so I switched him from attack to support at around 15 minutes. I dropped our line of engagement from very high to high, hoping to compact midfield a bit more so Harrison Jackson wasn’t on an island by himself. We also weren’t getting many shots, so I moved our mentality from balanced to positive. Things settled down, and we stole a goal via a Finley Burns header from a free-kick just before halftime. Jackson and Idah came off midway through the second half for Danjuma and Laws. Our best chance came from the forwards working the ball through the box to Lee Farrell with half the goal open and no one in his way. He blasted it into the North Sea. Spurs didn’t do much better, and we held on for a well-earned 1-0 victory.

Things remained tight with two matches to go.

I made a few personnel changes for the Chelsea match. Idah went up top and Danjuma came in on the left. I also lowered our line of engagement as I did for Spurs, and set our mentality to positive. The first half was pretty even, though we only mustered a single shot. We went into halftime scoreless, where I lied to the lads and told them I was happy with their performance, which they lapped up. Unfortunately, they didn’t play any better in the second half, and Chelsea managed a goal on 58 minutes from a Moukoko to Tammy Abraham throughball. Things finished Sunderland 0 – 1 Chelsea, though even on shots and nearly even on xG.

My strikers are terrible and I hate them.

Our European dream died with a whimper.

You can’t see them in 20th place here, but Liverpool have spent 141m net. It’s been spent well, too, given their titles in recent years. Spurs are, naturally, turning a profit on transfers, including the 69m Liverpool paid for Oliver Skipp last season.

Oh, and look at that. Harry Kane to Barcelona for 64m. How the heck did Skippy fetch more than Harry? Actually, how the heck did they get someone pay 64m for thirty-two-year-old Harry Kane?

So. Manchester City away. I didn’t expect to win, but I didn’t want to get pasted for 5 goals, either. I rolled out the 4132 and mixed in a few of the kids that needed minutes, including Brad Laws, John Ramirez, Obren Cikic, and Gaston Araujo. The bad news was that we once again generated nothing going forward. The other bad news was that City did. It took them 89 minutes, but they finally scraped a goal. After the match I made up some tripe about the lads giving it everything, which they once again lapped up.

But will he be wearing a Sunderland shirt when he ends it?

Five matches ago we were in 7th place on 54 points. In that time we managed a mere 3 points to get to 57.

And yet we stayed right there in 7th place. That is, if you’re counting, the same number of points as last season, but two places higher in the table.

We were kinda bad in the second half of the season, though many of those losses were close. We are punching a bit above our level of talent, in my opinion. 

Actually, let’s look at the analyst stats again.

Our keepers are below average, though I think this does us a disservice due to our backup keeper being so bad. So let’s just look at Tirano compared to the league.

Not so bad! The best agility, but the worst reflexes. Generally decent otherwise. He’ll get better, too.

Defensively we are legit. A bit slow, but good everywhere else.

Midfield is a worse story. Poor passing and vision on average, but good tackling and decisions. Decisions??? I have no idea.

Our forwards are really killing us.

I have some excellent attacking prospects on the way, but they’re still kids. We really need a 22-24-year-old striker with superlative stats. That’s going to cost us 50m+, and I have no idea if the board will let me spend that much on a single player. I also have no idea if I can find someone who is both good and willing to join us. That will be for the next installment.

We played too much defense this season. Burns and Augusto were immense. Tirado and Idah were very good. After that things were mediocre. Lee Farrell, for example, is probably our best player in terms of ability, but he turned in the lowest rating.

He’s still improving, though.

Jamie Allen has retired from football at only 30 years old.

I haven’t noticed this screen previously (or maybe I have and have forgotten it). We were below our xG, which isn’t a shock. We finished right on our expected position, though.

“There is currently a leadership void in the squad.” This is what happens when most of your first team is under 21.

This is your yearly reminder that City sold him to us for 300k.

Speaking of City, they edged Spurs in the Europa League final.

That’s brutal. A first-minute goal. I did go back and check, and yep, Spurs finished 5th and City finished 6th last season.

Arsenal edged Manchester United in the Champion’s League final.

United have Calvert-Lewin leading the line. He’s a good striker, but he’s no Erling Haaland. To make matters worse, United needed to win to get back to the Champion’s League since they finished in 6th.

Kyril, my man. You’re a legend.

And on that fine note, I’ll sign out. Until next time, footy nerds.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 6, Part 1

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

It’s a month into the 2025-2026 season, and Sunderland are alive and well in the top flight after comfortably avoiding relegation last season. Our summer transfer window saw some new faces join the club, and our first month of results was good, other than one shambolic away loss.

After the excellent run in August, we cooled a bit in September, losing to Villa, drawing at home against Everton, and drawing away at Arsenal. We did scrape a 1-0 over Portsmouth in the Carabao Cup, but that was expected.

October was better with a 2-1 win over Manchester United at home, 2-0 over Bournemouth at home, and 2-0 over Derby at home in the next round of the Carabao Cup. The only blemish was a horrific 0-2 loss way at Fulham.

November started poorly with a 0-3 loss away at Wolves. At this point I took a long, hard look at our tactic. We were doing great at home, but really struggling on the road, including some embarrassing losses.

Here’s how we looked at the time (ignore the injuries as this screenshot was from mid-December).

I looked at our players and thought about why we were getting beat and where our strengths were. We couldn’t maintain possession as I wanted, and we were getting beat by counter-attacks.

I switched things up.

Yes, I will admit that this basic formation is pretty meta within the downloadable tactics, BUT this is something I cooked up by shifting around from our old 4231. You can even see the tactic name at the top since I haven’t changed it. I know, from watching far too many YouTube videos, that two strikers is generally better than one in FM21, and wingers are not as necessary as they were in FM20.

The key principle here was to stop conceding so much. My hope was that the halfback dropping between the centerbacks would give us the extra stability in the back line and the packed midfield would disrupt possession around our box. The formation in the tactic is the shape the players will take in defense. Their roles and individual instructions govern what they do in attack. The wingbacks will charge up the field and give us width, and the mezzalas will slide wider and occupy the half spaces between the opposing midfield and defense. I have the AP-attack at CM to move up and support the DLF and Advanced Forward.

Instruction-wise, I kept it simple, as you can see. Shorter passing and playing out of defense to maintain possession, higher tempo because I do want us to have some attacking threat on the counter. I’m distributing to my fullbacks because they’re better with the ball than my centerbacks or DM. We’re counter-pressing because you pretty much have to in this match engine. Forcing the opposition outside was a conscious decision since we have so many great leapers in defense. The higher line of engagement is to get pressure from the strikers, but we’re maintaining a standard defensive line to prevent those counter-attacks.

I did add individual instructions to the AP. He should be getting further forward and make more direct passes. With Farrell’s 18 passing, 16 vision, and 18 decisions, he should be incredible in this role. Ramirez has 16 passing, 15 decisions, and 13 vision, so he’s not far behind and will be the second choice here.

All this combines to mean that we’re conceding some possession in the middle third, but we’re clogging the center of the park in the final third, and when our giant centerbacks head the ball away, we’re quick to pick it up and move it upfield.

Leeds came to visit, and I used the old formation since it was working at home. We smashed them 5-0. Norwich came to visit, and we won 2-1. On a trip to Leicester, I tried the new tactic. It wasn’t pretty, but we won 2-1. Then we had to go to Burnley, who haven’t been kind to us in our Premier League encounters. We won 4-2.

Our next series of matches was ugly.

  • Spurs away
  • Liverpool at home
  • Manchester United at home in the Carabao Cup
  • Manchester City at home
  • Chelsea away
  • West Ham at home

We throttled Spurs 3-1, to my surprise and delight.

Then Liverpool came to the Stadium of Light, and it was proper English football weather. Cold, driving rain. Oliver Skipp was starting in midfield after a 69m transfer from Spurs in the summer of 2025. We went up early but gave one back on 20 minutes before Idah scored his second of the day. Midway through the second half Alaba cleared off the line to prevent an Idah hat trick, and I thought we were going to take a famous 2-1 victory, only to be denied by a dodgy penalty call at 90+6. The draw flattered Liverpool more than us, to be honest. We were robbed by the penalty call.

After the Liverpool match, another head-hunting message turned up on my WhatsApp.

Did I want to leave 5th placed Sunderland, who I lovingly crafted into a decent top-half Premier League club for last-placed Aston Villa? No. I did not.

And that’s that. Bring on the Manchesters.

Man United at home in the Carabao Cup was a match where I considered going back to our asymmetric attacking formation, but injuries wouldn’t let me. Danjuma was out, Jackson had a knock, Enric was recovering from a long-term injury, and Dan N’Lundulu wasn’t match fit or good enough. I rolled with the tactic above, and we cruised to a 3-0 victory. Unfortunately, Idah picked up a 4-week injury, and Farrell picked up a 4-day knock.

We played Manchester City at home in the league without Lee Farrell or Adam Idah, our two most important players. This is a City team we have beaten before at home, but they were too good for us. Both their goals came from their centerbacks on set pieces, which was disappointing given that we’re usually dominant on set pieces. We actually looked okay going forward, getting some shots on goal, including a very late Harrison Jackson consolation, but ultimately our 6 match winning streak ended in a 1-2 loss that really could have gone either way.

Chelsea in 2025 are, if anything, more stacked than City. Their front line of Moukoko, Leao, and Rodrygo is preposterous. Amusingly, their back four still includes Chillwell, Tomori, and James. We got outplayed. The xG battle was Chelsea 1.85 – 0.73 Sunderland. Not great, and a match you’d expect to lose 99% of the time. Usually when we get 5 shots on target we can get a goal. We did not. No problem; it happens. Chelsea had 12 shots with 7 on target, including the penalty. They scored FIVE.

And they hurt Neco for a month. Pricks.

Every bad loss is an opportunity for free work rate or determination (if you know what I mean (and I mean yelling at the lazy bastards for such poor performances)), and Tirado, Sima, Jackson, and Farrell all picked up stats.

We followed up the Chelsea loss with a slightly less shitty loss to West Ham. At home. The injuries and accumulated fatigue were brutal.

The November and December results were so good, and then the wheels fell off after the narrow loss to City.

The West Ham loss left us in 7th place, on 33 points.

I did my usual deal-making in December, trying to lineup transfers for January.

It’s a dog-eat black cat world out there. This guy was on no one’s radar until we bid, but his agent managed to get Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and PSG to go in for him.

He went to PSG to play in their U19s. You coulda been a hero, kid. And played lots of minutes in the Premier League.

We picked up an extra 1.23 million by way of allowing Brentford to buyout a transfer clause on our former free transfer Isak Solberg. Solberg was our emergency backup keeper that played one match and left for 550k after sitting in our reserves for a season. I included a sell-on clause in that deal, and with Solberg sitting on the Brentford bench and having a 200k value, I decided to cash in. We didn’t need the money, but the hunt for value never stops.

Dzenis Burnic, who was attracting 20m offers last winter, departed the club for 7.5m. Chinese club DL Pro were willing to take him off our hands six months before his contract ended, and I was willing to let them do it.

Dan N’Lundulu finally agreed a contract with another club. Again, we were six months from him leaving on a free, so I had to take a 5m deal from West Brom. It was spread over three years, but at least we got paid.

Going into the window, I once again wanted a striker. I had two possible options I could recall from their loans.

Brad Laws was 3rd on the depth chart, according to Mike Phelan, my AssMan. That may or may not be accurate, but he’s physically capable, okay mentally, but a bit lacking technically.

Ignacio doesn’t have the same physical tools yet, but he’s far better technically. With him growing like he was, I was hesitant to bring him back.

There were a couple other irons in the fire, but they will be part of the next update.

See you next time, footy nerds.

Update: the next installment is available here.

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 6, Summer Transfer Window

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

The last time we were here the club had just finished the 2024-2025 Premier League season, in which we were expected to fight bravely against relegation and actually secured comfortable mid-table survival, including famous wins over Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Everton (four times lol).

The board have presented their expectations, and I have readily agreed to them.

We shouldn’t be relegated at this point. Our squad has enough quality to stay up. Don’t tell the squad that, though. The knobs think we’re going down were furious when I suggested we could avoid a relegation fight.

Current expectations are:

  • Squad: Relegation
  • Board: Avoid Relegation
  • Coaches: Qualify for Europe

The “Qualify for Europe” plans revolves around our transfers over the next three months. That means fueling the incoming wonderkid pipeline and greasing the journeyman ejector. It also means retaining our best players.

I told him he could leave if someone met his release clause. It’s 77m for clubs in continental competition. If that happens, it happens. That’s like 3-4 South American wonderkids, if so.

Cikic’s clause is 43.5m, and he got the same speech as The Scottish Mistake. He took it fine.

We have multiple incoming players. First up is a free signing you haven’t seen before.

Harrison Jackson’s contract at Sheffield United was set to expire in June, so we grabbed him for free. I envision him as a good rotation option at AMC or as a Deep Lying Forward at ST. Physically, he’s not great. Good balance and fitness, but mediocre pace, strength and jumping. Mentally, he’s already looking very good. Technically he’s not really a striker, but he has good dribbling and passing, which I think will work well for us.

Adan Tirado was also free, from Real Madrid.

Decent-looking goalkeeper with good potential. About as good as Meggie, but will be far better in a season or two.

Schmitz will slot right into midfield as a creative passer. He set us back 3.5m.

John Ramirez will fit there, too. We have rotation options for Lee Farrell and Enric. He was 925k.

Ignacio is another great dribbler with mediocre pace. He doesn’t have the passing or vision of Harrison Jackson, but he’s only 17 and has great potential. He cost 950k. I’m not expecting him to contribute meaningfully his first season.

Because I can’t resist another wonderkid, I’ve signed another wonderkid.

My midfield is going to have the opposite problem of last season when we barely had enough good players. Gaston set us back 7.5m in transfer fees with an escalator for another 1m if he reaches 10 international appearances. His contract includes a minimum release fee of 82m, which I’m more and more seeing as a win. Yes, someone could activate it, but that’s a lotta clams for new players if they do.

It’s wonderkid Christmas up in here.

Nilson signed on a free and will arrive in January. His role will be determined in the future. Maybe leftback? Maybe left winger? Maybe just kick around on loans for a few years and be sold for a profit? He cost us practically nothing.

Nilson was the 5th of my 6 possible international transfers for the season.

I didn’t need a new rightback. I have Neco. I didn’t need a new leftback. I have Dragic. But was I supposed to pass up a < 20m deal for a Scottish wonderkid? I mean, that is not how I operate.

Adam Steele set us back 19.5m and came in as a star player on 59k per week. He can play either fullback position or at DM. Basically, I looked at him and asked myself, “could this kid play in the Champion’s League in a year or two?” and felt like the answer was “yes.” His attacking abilities aren’t great, but he’s very good defensively, he’s only 20, and he has plenty of potential left. Even if he’s just the “lockdown right back for top half matches,” that will be helpful. He’ll rotate with Neco and Dragic and get enough minutes to stay off my back. Hopefully.

And now for the nearly transfers.

After Enric worked out so well, I tried to go back to the well to poach another Barcelona midfielder, but…

He looked promising for his age.

I thought, “well, maybe I can leave him be for a year and activate a slightly higher release clause.” Uh, probably not. Barca set his clause to 69m.

We took a shot at signing a new left-winger to supplement (or replace) Danjuma.

He went to Watford instead. They’re in the Championship! (They also offered 16k more per week. I really need to pay attention to when players are wanted at other clubs. This isn’t the first time I’ve made a lower offer and had them choose another club.)

Similarly, I tried to pick up Ivan Ilic from Man City for a cut price 6.75m. I didn’t really need him, but he profiled as being my second-best midfielder, and I liked the idea of having another Resolute senior player in the squad.

He chose West Ham instead. They at least were in the Premier League.

I was SUPER excited at the prospect of getting Liam Delap in for 8.25m from Man City.

Naturally, he spurned us for Southampton. I even offered him better wages! Ugh. This one stings. He is a solid player right now and may still improve a bit with more playing time in the league.

When Delap fell through, I went after this lad from Germany with his 14.75m release clause.

He treated us like we were Tottenham. His agent signed him for a new deal on better wages at Schalke. Less wages than I was willing to pay, even.

This lad spurned us for Liverpool.

Bags of pace, gobs of potential, and now he’s going to go sit on their bench or be loaned to some League One side for a few years before I buy him for the same price when he has a year left on his Liverpool contract. Whatever, dude. You could have been a Black Cats legend.

I didn’t even make an offer for Billy, because his agent said we needed to be in the Champion’s League for him to consider a move. I cannot believe Chelsea let him go for 8.5m.

That is preposterous business for Lyon. He’s not physically amazing, but he can be amazing in the center of their midfield firing balls around the pitch to their stupendous collection of wingers and forwards they won’t sell me. (Lyon have so many amazing regens that are all out of our reach.)

On the outgoing front, we have to start with our long-time midfielder MAX POWER. It was time. Max was a good servant to the club, and he was immense all three of our seasons below the Premier League, but he was simply not good enough for our current level, and he wasn’t getting any younger.

His last act for the club was to present the players’ code of conduct.

He left the club on a free transfer. Farewell, friend, and safe travels.

Kean Bryan was key to our promotion from the Championship twice, but only had limited minutes in our last Premier League season. With Adam Steele here as a star player, it was time for him to leave.

Huddersfield paid 7.5m over 3 seasons to take him. He originally joined on a free.

Not all my transfer business is perfect. Josh Tymon is a good example.

I overpaid for him at 7m, and he departed for a mere 3.7m. He didn’t play much last season, and he wasn’t going to play much this season, either.

Pure Magic was another departure under a cloud. Look, I don’t want to call the guy a fraud, but our scouts f***ing lied to us. He wasn’t improving much at all, and his potential had dropped to a mere 3 stars.

Here’s how he looked when he joined us.

And here’s how he looked when he left us.

He gained an inch of height and put on a few pounds. Otherwise, not a ton of difference. He was supposed to go to Huddersfield for 5m spread over 3 seasons, but the jerk rejected their contract offer. He left on loan to League One Rotherham instead.

Longtime club servant Dan N’Lundulu was supposed to go to Brentford. They made multiple offers, and I finally accepted one that started at 15m and will likely reach 18m.

He rejected their contract! I’m clearly overpaying these guys if they won’t go to places like Brentford where they’ll actually get minutes. I nearly had him sold to Huddersfield late in the window, and he rejected them, too. Maybe he really wants to leave on a free? Maybe he’s hoping for a big money move to China or America in January? I guess I’m stuck with him until then.

Our homegrown left-back, Calin Tututa, left for Huddersfield.

He fetched 500k. His potential appears to be okay, but in reality he wasn’t improving much. Those stats are rubbish, too. He can’t defend, he can’t attack. All he can really do is sprint 10 meters a few times before getting knackered. My only regret is that the 500k felt a little too easy, and I might have been able to get another million out of him.

We loaned a bunch of guys out, too.

Calum Knight isn’t looking great at our affiliate Gateshead, but Brad Laws and Ignacio Escalante are doing well. Speaking of Ignacio, I was hunting for striker options late in the window after all the failed transfers, and I found a kid in South America on the Peruvian national team who look promising. I went to check his transfer value, and I discovered he played for us already. Ignacio was like, hey boss, want to go out for some chicken and broccoli after the match? (The Cristiano Ronaldo diet, fyi.) Kid looks promising, and he already has two senior caps for his national team, so we should have him back in January and ready to help us through the second half of the season.

The bookies gave us decent odds for… Well, that’s better than nothing, I guess.

I’m still annoyed that Chelsea got Moukoko. Yes, it’s been like 4 seasons since it happened.

I’m planning to start with the hybrid 4321/4411 that worked so well to end the season.

Results are generally good, though we’ve flattered to deceive.

Southampton came to town in our first match of the season. Idah put the ball in the net three times, two of them counted, and all Southampton could muster was a late consolation. Liam Delap was nowhere to be seen.

Away to West Ham was a struggle. We couldn’t get anything going forward, and when I opened us up to be more attacking we got murdered on the counter. Myron Boadu scored all four goals for West Ham.

We turned it around a bit from there. We had to come from behind against Sheffield after a dire spell just after halftime, but we managed to take the win and look decent in the last 15 minutes.

Accrington looks good on the schedule, but what a shitshow. We didn’t deserve this:

Maybe I rotated in too many young players, but we had massively more quality and played like my 5 aside team on a full-size pitch. It was shambolic. The opposite of the Southampton result. And yet, our quality managed to shine through at the last, and we avoided penalties.

Somehow Blackburn came into the match against us as favorites. We obliterated them on every metric. That one felt good.

At the end of the window we’re sitting in the top half with a few good wins and one rubbish loss.

I figure we have about a 5% chance of relegation, 30% chance of lower mid-table, 50% chance of upper mid-table / non-European places, 13% chance of 6th or 7th, and about 2% of 5th or better.  I would love to sneak into a qualification place for Europe, but it would require us to get lucky with the bigger, better sides stumbling.

We have plenty of money, but I’ve struggled to spend it. Neco, Bacolla, Araujo, and Steele all cost decent money, but going up a level from there is harder. The best I can generally do is non-Central European wonderkids or the odd transfer-listed veteran. We still don’t have the top class striker I want. I’m not super confident in my tactical choices. Our midfield is decent, but needs to gel.

Will I come to regret selling my backup leftback and my backup centerback/leftback combo? Will our strike force shit the bed for two months again and tank our chances at Europe?

Read the next section to find out!

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 5, Part 2

Welcome back to the second half of the 2024-2025 season, footy nerds. If you’re just joining, the previous installment is available here, and the first installment in the series is available here.

We’re in the middle of our second Premier League season after a promotion, relegation, and immediate promotion back to the top flight.

I’ve been watching lots of YouTube videos about FM while I’ve been playing FM. I caught a quote today that really struck a chord. “I deal in a currency called Brazilian wonderkids.” -Zealand

Me, too, Zealand. Me, too.

The vultures have started gathering around our very much still alive squad, looking to pick off whoever they can. Between China and the bloody Americans, I have half a dozen guys who are wanted.

Shanghai Port tried to pry away Arnaut Danjuma for 37m, which feels like a solid price for a guy that’s 27, mid-table Premier League quality, and valued at 25m, but I declined it. I’m rich. I don’t need the money. I might have sold for 50m, but they didn’t make an offer. I’m also happy to keep him until summer and sell him then.
Wuhan and Henan both came in for Dzenis Burnic with offers around 20m. I was willing to take it, but not without a replacement lined up, and they wouldn’t let me negotiate so, so they never really had the chance to tempt me on a counter-offer. Ivan Sunjic attracted a 20m offer from Wuhan, but the same principle applied. I’d let him go even though he’s a team leader, but only for more money. Even Josh Onomah attracted offers! Of the four, Onomah was the one I was most willing to do without. 

For incoming transfers, I secured a face we all know and love.

I got him for 15m! Technically he was out of contract in the summer, but A) I couldn’t offer him a deal yet because his parent club (Liverpool) was also English (you can only offer pre-contract deals to players from domestic clubs 30 days before their contract ends), and B) Liverpool had a 1-year extension, and they would just activate it to keep him from leaving on a free. I’m happy with the 15m. He’s not ever going to be the best right-back in the world, but he’s going to be a very reliable player for us for years to come, plus he can play in midfield or at AMR as a winger.

The even better news was that I got this deal done early in the month, before we played Liverpool, so I was able to use Neco against them for a change. (Spoiler: it didn’t help.)

I found a young German fullback with a 575k release clause, which felt like a steal for someone his age and ability. I activated it, of course.

He’s not as good as Josh Tymon, but he could grow into a better player.

I made the offer, we agreed a contract, and… he went to Bayern’s U19 side. Those jerks.

Looking ahead at the possible departures, I wanted to secure some strong replacements.

I found this gem in Argentina, but I couldn’t exactly get him on the cheap, so I put together a deal with a bunch of escalators based on performance.

The board tried to block it.

Operative word: tried. I spoke to them, and they backed down. Which is good, because we needed him immediately.

I was a little sad to lose Onomah, but I predicted it would happen, and lo it has come to pass. The fact that his fee almost entirely paid for Bacolla’s transfer was a nice little bonus.

We didn’t lose a ton, to be honest. He could play across the attacking midfield band or at MC, which was helpful, but he wasn’t amazing. Certainly not the “competing for European places” level we want to be at.

I tried another pass at Dinamo’s wonderkid striker, Silvio Kramaric, who I still think is one of the best striker prospects in the world.

The board balked at my potential 30m offer, and I couldn’t talk them out of it.

Damn it, Kyril. We’re rich! Let me spend the money how I want!

He went to Milan for 21.5m. He’ll cost 60m if we ever want to buy him in the future. I might, conceivably, pay that if we’re in the Champion’s League. They signed him as a squad player, so I don’t think I’ll be able to get him on the cheap if he’s unhappy with his minutes.

Our old target Victor Hugo landed at Chelsea. I hate how the rich get richer.

I took a shot at this English kid for 34m.

He spurned us for Everton. I feel like I can find similar talent in South America for 15-20m, but he looked as if he could help us immediately and still have a ton of potential. The really annoying thing here was that the board didn’t even blink. They wanted to interfere with my Argentine and Croatian transfers, but you pay over the odds for a young English lad, and it’s all good?

We picked up a new goalkeeper to arrive in the summer when his contract ends.

Adan is on the books at Real Madrid. Our scouts already think he has better ability than Meggie, plus he has higher potential.

Adan’s aerial reach and reflexes are a bit lower currently, but he’s generally better physically. It’s probably a toss-up between them, but Adan is 5 years younger. This probably means Meggie moves in the summer for a big fee. If he does, it will be after 2.5 years at the club, so it’ll be fantastic value for a guy that came on a free transfer.

This deal was done after the window closed, but the guy is only 17, so he wouldn’t arrive until summer, anyway.

Ignacio is a Peruvian winger that’s excellent with the ball at his feet, reasonably tall, but not terribly fast. Unfortunately, he failed his work permit, but that was expected. We’ll do the ol’ “send ’em to MLS for six months” trick and he’ll very likely get his callups to the Peruvian U19s.

We scored a couple great goals in February. Enric’s, in particular, was very Son-esque. He ran past most of the West ham defense to finish a brilliant solo counter-attack.

Our biggest match of the season was on March 2nd vs Arsenal at Wembley. The Carabao Cup final. We went in with our 4411, which helped end a poor run of form in the week prior to the match.

Arsenal went up 1-0 in the first minute with a long-range strike. It was so early, I didn’t want to change anything.

We went into halftime looking okay. Down a goal, but comparable xG and shots, even if our shot numbers were lower than I’d like to see. On 55 minutes we switched to the 4231 and an Attacking mentality, which got us some more chances, but opened us up to a neat series of open-play passes that left Emile Smith Rowe 1 on 1 with Meggie. Arsenal 2 – 0 Sunderland. We went to Very Attacking, and adjusted our roles to be more attacking and our set pieces to be more risky, but nothing helped. We have lost our first cup final.

Arsenal were 20 points ahead of us in the table before the match. They have by far the better side. We played competitively and didn’t embarrass ourselves. The result wasn’t unfair, but it’s hard to be too disappointed, either. This won’t be our last cup final (well, it may be this season), and I expect we’ll come back stronger.

Our very next match was in the FA Cup 4th round at home against Bournemouth. Naturally, we went down to a low-percent shot early in the first half. The 4411 was getting us chances, but we couldn’t finish anything. Again, in the second half, I switched to the 4321. On 80 minutes I went to Very Attacking and moved the DM up to the midfield line and adjusted the midfield roles from support to attack. Enric scored a beauty on 87 minutes so I immediately dropped to Positive mentality and steeled myself for a penalty shootout.

Idah bagged a 90th minute winner, and we escaped getting FMed. (When you totally outplay an opponent and they beat you, anyway.)

The match story was so nearly a tragedy. The 4411 wasn’t really working. It helped break a poor streak of form, but I’ve had better luck with the 4231 with a higher defensive line and the DM in the midfield band. We dodged the heavyweights for the Quarter Final and drew our old pals Sheffield United at the Stadium of Light.

Imagine losing 1-4 to Spurs, only to turn around and win 3-1 vs Manchester City. I would say we have a consistency issue, but we’ve been consistently poor for half the season. Incredible result vs City, though. Dang.

The youth intake arrived in mid-March.

One of the things I’ve learned while watching videos during my FM sessions is that even coaches with a 20 rating for player potential are inconsistent at rating players 16 and under. It starts to take shape by 19, but doesn’t solidify until 22. So these three 4 star kids might actually be 4-star potential. They might also be 2.5 stars or 5 stars.

None of the three make me think “obvious wonderkid,” but they have potential. Edwards worries me, though. Unambitious is a terrible personality. We’ll have to see if the general level of the squad improves him any. Determination is one of the easiest stats to change, and I’ll definitely be after him for poor performance. Hopefully, he improves over the next few years.

Our FA Cup run came crashing to an end in the Quarter Final.

We were just NOT at the races. It was the third match in 7 days, I was doing a bunch of juggling with fatigue and fitness, and I think it just caught up to us. I didn’t expect to win the competition, but I hoped we’d be able to get past Sheffield United, of all teams.

The FA Cup loss left us with 8 matches remaining in the season, all in the Premier League. We were sitting in 9th place on 45 points, 5 points from the Europa League places.

  • vs 6th place Everton (probably a loss)
  • vs 15th place Leicester (winnable)
  • at 11th place Fulham (winnable)
  • at 17th place Southampton (winnable)
  • at 19th place Crystal Palace (winnable)
  • at 20th place Huddersfield (winnable)
  • vs 8th place Villa (winnable)
  • vs 3rd place Arsenal (probably a loss)

Of the six “winnable” matches, I figured we’d take about 9 points, which would put us on 54 for the end of the season and firmly midtable. If things went poorly, we should still be well safe from relegation, and if they went well we could sneak into the Europa League.

During the international break before that run of matches started, my scouts turned up this Brazilian lad unattached to a club.

Uh, yes, please!

See those 6 U20 caps? They make him eligible for a work permit. I snapped him up. The best part (okay, like third-best part) is that I had an open foreign under-21 slot for this season, and I was able to get him on the deadline day for free signings, so he won’t even count against next season’s six slots.

Really breaking the bank for him, too. Did I really need another defensive midfielder? Not really. Will he still get some minutes and next season? Probably.

Oh, what’s this?

If he can’t hold down a spot, I’ll sell him for a decent chunk of that total. If he gets a thousand minutes in the autumn, he may go off to China for twice that much. As the quote at the top said: “I deal in a currency called Brazilian wonderkids.”

The first match of the run-in was vs Everton. We played them evenly, with a slight edge to us in the stats, but my heart stuck in my throat more often on their attacks than ours. A hard-fought 1-1 draw felt about right. We held our spot in the table at 9th, but so did they at 6th, still 5 points ahead of us and the guaranteed Europa League place. (I’m not sure we land in the Europa Conference League if we finish 7th, so I’m not counting on it.)

We came into the Leicester City match with the usual 4231, but the fullbacks were set to WB-A, and the first ten minutes of the match were basically a basketball game of end-to-end attacking. Joao Pedro was doing a Lebron James impersonation for Leicester. Those ten minutes ended with us up 2-1 and me telling the wingbacks to switch to support. That settled things down a bit until we conceded on a free-kick into the top corner, only to pull ahead a moment later with a Finley Burns header from our own free-kick. (Dude is an absolute giant (19 jumping and 17 tackling), and I’m still amazed and delighted Manchester City sold him to us for only 300k.) It was still a bit loose when we went in at halftime up 3-2, so I dropped our defensive line and line of engagement both to standard and had Ross McCrorie man-mark Joao Pedro. We held on for the win.

Fulham went up 1-0 on an 8th-minute free-kick into the corner. That’s a recurring theme, and it’s getting frustrating. Obren Cikic, playing in midfield due to fatigue in the squad, slotted home in the 26th bring us back level. He’s now only 4-star potential, and I’m good with that. A very tidy player who seems certain to reach his potential. Around 55 minutes I decided to drop our lines again to solidify things, and while we were waiting for a break in play for the instructions to take effect, Fulham scored by getting a ball in behind Ross McCrorie at rightback. So. Frustrating. We scraped a draw in a match we pretty much dominated.

With five matches to go, we sat in 9th place, even on 50 points with 10th placed West Ham, but 13 ahead of 11th placed Fulham. We also sat 4 points from the Europa League places.

For the match away to Southampton, I started us with standard lines and only urgent pressing intensity rather than the prior extremely urgent. After about half an hour, I lowered our tempo and told the lads to play for set-pieces so we could aim at the jolly Scottish giant’s forehead. We weren’t giving up quality shots, but we were giving up too many shots, and we weren’t getting forward well at all. Southampton eventually scored on a near-post corner routine where their player beat Adam Idah to the ball and managed to avoid our towering centerbacks. Five minutes later, they did it again, this time getting two guys on Idah and overpowering him. We lost.

Our best players were knackered. Our second-best players weren’t good enough.

The summer crop of wonderkids cannot arrive soon enough.

The loss dropped us to 10th place with a 10 point gap between us and 11th placed Burnley.

We went into a match at 19th placed Crystal Palace as underdogs. We looked like a puddle of day-old dog vomit and lost 1-3. Is this season over yet?

Our forwards were shit. Our midfielders were shit. Our defenders were not shit. We drew 0-0 to a team that was already relegated. The European places are too far to reach. We could, possibly, be caught by Burnley and fall to 11th.

Players on my shitlist:

Danjuma – 6.54 average rating over his last 5 matches

N’Lundulu – 6.56

Sima – 6.64

Enric – 6.68 (he’s better than this)

Aston Villa, in 8th place, came to visit the Stadium of Light. We lined up with an asymmetric formation somewhere between a 4321 and a 4411.

I needed something different, and this put us in a shape where we could hopefully be solid enough at the back and get something forward in attack with a little bit of spacing.

It looked okay at halftime. If not for a bad Lee Farrell miss on a counter-attack, we would have been ahead on 50 minutes. Villa cleared a ball off the line on 63 minutes to save a certain goal. Just when I was starting to think we might win a match, Ollie Watkins broke my heart, only for Adam Idah to draw us level moments later. Pure Magic, back in the side for the first time in months, scored a counter-attack on 78 minutes to give us the lead. A brilliant, deep cross from Cikic to a streaking Idah added to our advantage in the 83rd minute. We held on for a comfortable 3-1 win.

That actually worked. I can’t quite believe it. That wraps up the 9 points I thought we’d get.

Going into the final day we needed one point from Arsenal, at home, to stay ahead of Everton and secure 9th place. Bacolla replaced Cikic on the right, and he put a perfect cross onto Idah’s head on 33 minutes. Five minutes later Bacolla found space on the left (after a failed set piece) and threaded a ball through to Idah for his second.  One minute later, he did it again, with the help of a deflection off Pure Magic’s back (for real, his back), for Idah to complete a first-half hat trick. Ho. Lee. Shit. One minute after that, Idah drew and converted a penalty.  Patson Daka pulled one back for Arsenal, only for Idah to score his fifth of the day a minute later.

I haven’t seen many 10.0 performances in this game, but Adam Idah delivered a brilliant one. We cruised to a 5-1 win.

We finished in 9th place, agonizingly close to the European places.

Our form was never great, though in retrospect it was never too terrible at any one time. Our fundamental problem is a lack of quality in the squad.

The star ratings are imperfect, but this gives an okay view of our quality. Farrell, Burns, Bacolla, and Enric are legit wonderkids. Neco, Augusto, Dragic, McCrorie, and Idah are all legitimately good players. After that the quality dips. Cikic was good at times. Wendel is too new for me to judge him. Burnic and Junjic are meh. Carlin and Lacroix are young enough that I have hope they’ll improve. (That Carlin purchase isn’t look as brilliant as I thought at the time.) Sima, Danjuma, Tymon, N’Lundulu, Bryan, and Meggie are all possible departures. Pure Magic is basically a flop. The scouts lied to me on him. So did that sexy, sexy dribbling plus finishing combo he had at 17.

Looking ahead, I want to upgrade Sima, Danjuma, N’Lundulu, Tymon, and Bryan. I already have an upgrade coming for Meggie.

Kyril’s giving me a good starting budget, and a few departures will see it go even further.

The wheels absolutely fell off this formation, but it did get us to midtable.

I tried to tell the team that we’d avoid a relegation battle next season, and they lost their pixelated minds saying we weren’t good enough for that. C’mon, dudes. I’ve only failed you once before.

Here’s a pretty good summary of where we ended up.

We’ll break here, and I’ll be back soon with the summer transfer window. See you next time, footy nerds.

Update: the next installment is available here

Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked – Season 5, Part 1

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

I’ve been reviewing some areas of the game I’ve neglected.

Our scouting has been spotty over the last few seasons. My manual searches have turned up some great youth players from the global intakes, but my scouts haven’t been very effective. I’ve been letting my Chief Scout handle responsibilities throughout the save. That ended in September. We’re now scouting the following regions and looking for players with 4 star (superb) potential.

  • England and Ireland
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Southern Europe
  • North Africa, West Africa, South Africa
  • South America (East)
  • North America & Central America
  • Scandinavia
  • France, Italy, and Spain specifically
  • Various cup competitions across the world

I’ve also convinced the board to increase our number of scouts to 11. The expectation is that we should start turning up more mid-career players for consideration, plus we should turn up more prospects that have played well but missed our filters for youth intake.

The autumn started really well. So well that Wolves came knocking to gauge my interest in their managerial vacancy.

The save is called “Sunderland ’til I’m Sacked,” not “Sunderland ’til I’m Given a Mediocre Raise.” I declined the interview. (Feels good to be wanted, though.)

The game gives you the ability to review analyst data for your squad’s stats vs the rest of the league. I wish I had done this in our prior seasons, but I’ve only learned of it in the last few days, so at least we’ll have it going forward.

Physically, we’re below par. Not the worst in the league, but far from where we want to be if we’re going to compete with the upper echelons of the league or in Europe. We are, however, very good in the air. We should be playing for set pieces more than we already do, and I’ll adjust the tactics based on this.

The caveat to this, and to the areas below, is that we are a very young squad. Not just the starters and subs, but the fact that I have a number of U23 players in the first-team squad but set to play U23 matches. This allows me to control their training and to put them into mentor groups with the senior players.

It’s a similar story mentally, though in this case it’s our relative youth. We have a number of nearly-wonderkids with high determination who will very likely improve over the coming seasons and drag this average upward. (Or not, because I may continue filling our U23s with nearly-wonderkids.)

We’re in better shape technically than mentally, for sure. Our long throws are the best in the league! (Why? How?) We’re above average in a number of defensive statistics and below in attacking.

Our squad may be above average defensively, but our actual defenders are below average. How can this be? I have a bunch of cloggers in my midfield, is how.
That actual defensive unit is excellent at jumping and heading, and we score plenty of set-piece goals because of it. We’re also the slowest team in the league. Which really reinforces that we should be playing a lower defensive line and that I need to be careful about counterattacks on corners.

One thing this doesn’t show, but I’ve seen time and again in our matches, is that our defenders are outstanding at flinging themselves in front of shots.

Foreshadowing alert: we have not been giving up many shots on target during the autumn portion of the 2024-2025 campaign.

Our midfielders are, if anything, worse than our defenders. The worst average passing, vision, and technique in the league. That’s honestly surprising; I didn’t think we were that bad. We are good in the tackle, but with poor stamina and decisions. This is a reflection of having so many kids and so many holding midfielders, and it tells me that I could really use a creative ballplayer and some upgraded wingers.

Keeping with the trend, our attackers are great jumpers. I value jumping in my centerbacks and goalkeepers, but this is getting ridiculous. We’re above average in heading, which makes sense. Our finishing isn’t terrible, but it’s not great. Our off-the-ball movement, pace and acceleration are poor. This is straight-up bad. Pace and acceleration are the most effective stats in the game.

I have had a mentoring group for a while, but it was a pretty large group with two senior players and a half-dozen younger guys. Per advice, I’ve broken that into smaller groups.

I’m hoping that the senior guys can help the current crop of wonderkids improve their personalities and stats. This is a great way to improve determination, but also some of the hidden stats like consistency and professionalism.

Our autumn form can be summed up in this image:

We were brilliant. The loss against City was not exactly unlucky, given their overall shots and xG, but the actual goal was a corner we half-cleared, and that Laporte converted when it was crossed back into the box in transition. It happens.

The only worrying trend for me was that we were generally outscoring our xG. I’m not complaining about the points, but I worry about maintaining that form through the season. On the plus side, our defense was generally very good. Those centerbacks with ridiculous tackling and leaping have been brilliant at cutting out crosses, blocking shots, and heading away the resulting corners.

Our match away at 3rd place Everton is a great example of our overperformance. We scored 4 goals, including 3 from open play and 1 from a corner. We did that on the back of 1.11 xG. Conversely, Everton scored 1 goal–a penalty–from 2.36 xG. Something like .75 of that xG was the penalty, but the rest was largely the accumulation of low-quality chances.

I don’t mind the low chances, but when you dig further, it gets more worrying.

We’re blocking a third of their shots and contesting the rest, but to be honest, the fact that two shots hit the woodwork is worrying. We could have easily conceded three here, which would have been in line with the xG.

Nice cross, bro. Wanna try again? And again? And Again?

Now, in the name of science, the game crashed as I was capturing more analysis screenshots, and I had the opportunity to replay this match. The game, however, does not believe in science and injured Obren Cikic for three weeks in the week before kickoff, so I lost my starting right-winger. In the second go ’round, we lined up with our modified 4231 rather than starting with the 4411 like we did the first time.

Abdallah Sima picked up a knock in the first half, so I subbed him to be cautious. Josh Onomah picked a 10-day ankle ligament injury late in the second half after I had used my subs, but it honestly didn’t matter.

The result was the same!

We gave up a poor early goal, but came back well. The Ben Godfrey own goal was one of those where he either risked a touch or our striker had a tap-in. We then scored from two corners.

The xG this time was much better. It honestly makes me wonder if the 4411 is even helpful. We used it for part of the match against City earlier, but we were much better with the 4231. With the 4231 I think we have a combination of better players (definitely true) and a tactic tweaked to better suit them (probably true). Going forward, I’ll be working from it as my starting point.

In our next match, against Fulham, I was watching for the shots and the xG.

Here we are, 10 minutes into the match, and Fulham have two shots, neither on target, but a total of 0.47 xG. What. The. Hell. Turns out the two shots were in the penalty area, in a central position, just outside the six-yard box. But they were taken with about five of our players between the ball and the goal. We blocked the first shot, it bounced out for a second shot, which we also blocked (we’re really good at blocking shots; I wasn’t kidding), and we raced down the field on the counter-attack. I think that if Statsbomb were calculating this xG, it would be far lower, given the bodies between the ball and the goal.

Moments later, the story repeated. We headed a corner out to the edge of the penalty area, Fulham took another shot, and we easily blocked it. But it counts as 0.47 xG for some reason. This is something Sports Interactive should review and adjust, in my opinion.

We went on to lose the match 1-2, naturally.

The next image is from a later match against Southampton.

Oh, look. We won the xG battle this time! And lost 1-3. In our defense, 2/3 of our team was either injured or completely knackered.

This is from earlier in the autumn.

It feels like we hit a spell of poor form every November/December, and I think it’s the initial autumn rush of matches coupled with international breaks. Guys get tired and get hurt, and we suffer because we don’t have enough depth. We coped well initially because people were fit, but the November international break wore out my best surviving players, and the ones coming back weren’t match fit.
Even with the injuries afflicting the rest of the club, our healthy kids are getting noticed.

I see things like this, though, and I worry less about a poor run of form. (Our solid position in the table helps my morale as well. Yes, I’m teasing you about where we are. We’ll get there.) We have two of the three most exciting young players in the league, and the other is the best young player from the beginning of the save. Our long-term success is not guaranteed, but I am bullish about it.

Hey, one of my individual training plans has paid off. Farrell is going to be even better as our midfield orchestrator.

The youth intake preview has come in. This looks promising. We could use a good midfield prospect, and I’m always interested in forwards. We’ll see how it looks come March.

As autumn turned to winter, and I was struggling to keep us from falling down the table, Kyril came by my office.

An extra 20m in transfer funds is welcome indeed!

Remember my whining about losing out on Victor Hugo? And remember my prediction about how much he was going to cost if we wanted to buy him in the future?

Look who my scouts turned up. (Thanks, guys. You’re the best.) The 16.25m isn’t too bad, but those wage demands are wayyy higher than we were going to pay last season. He’s on the shortlist, though left back is far less a worry than right back. We’re using Neco Williams as our starter, and I still can’t get Liverpool to sell him for under 60m.

He’s good, but he’s not 60m quid levels of good.

I’d still really like a top-class (or as near as we can get) midfielder to play alongside Lee Farrell. Or to rotate with him, as needed. I have my eye on a 19-year-old Egyptian goalkeeper, but he wasn’t interested in a pre-contract deal yet. I may get him in the summer. I’ll have more transfer updates in the next installment that covers January.

We had a brilliant match away in the Carabao Cup.

Which sets us up with a very enticing fixture in January.

We couldn’t win it, could we? We’ve already beaten Everton 4-1 (twice due to the crash) and Spurs 2-1. It’s possible, for sure. I can hardly wait to find out. Imagine: we could be playing in Europe next season, regardless of our league finish.

We’re to January 1st, and I’m including it here due to the excellent result away at Manchester United.

Our form hasn’t been brilliant lately, but we also just came off a run against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United where we were undefeated. Two of those matches were away. We could have won any of those matches.

We did have a couple bad losses against Southampton and Aston Villa. It’s going to happen. I’m not worried about it.

We’re just over the halfway point, and that last draw caused us to drop out of the European places. We could easily climb right back in with a run of easier matches on the horizon. We’re 1 point behind our points total from 2023.

Folks, I think we’re staying up this season.

And on that note, I’ll sign off. See you next time, footy nerds.

Update: Season 5, Part 2 is live now

New Story Week! x2

We take a break from the regularly scheduled Football Manager posts to announce not one but two new short stories available this week.

The first is “A Dying World, Overheated and Nearly Ruined” at Nature. It’s a flash piece that’s about computer repair, global warming, and corporate bureaucracy. They say to write what you know, right?

The second is “An Open Letter to Bezoath, Lord of Darkness and Shareholder Value” at Translunar Travelers’ Lounge. This is another flash piece about bad bosses and corporate bureaucracy. Again: write what you know, right? (My current and past managers are wondering which of them this is about. I’ll tell anyone that wants to buy the first round.)

Dying World is my second published story at Nature, and it’s the first time I’ve had a market publish me twice. I’m delighted to have another story there. I’m also delighted to have published a story that I think is about something serious and affects us all. July 2021 was the hottest month on record since humans have kept records, and I still have to listen to assholes tell me that it’s totally natural, despite all evidence. Yeah… things are going great.

Lord Bezoath is my first sale to Translunar Travelers Lounge. It could be the last. The editors at the lounge want stories that are “fun.” I struggle with fun. My work tends to be on the serious side. Or the “vaguely creepy whoah this veered toward horrific” side. I want to broaden my repertoire, though, and that includes more things that are fun. You. Will. Enjoy. My. Stories, he says, turning purple in the face.

Both stories are quick. I hope you enjoy each of them for entirely different reasons. Please laugh in the right places.

Now, back to the Football Manager posts.

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