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.