Football Manager 2017: The Sunderland Challenge: Pre-Season

You may remember I previously blogged about a “journeyman” challenge where I started unemployed and then took charge of Weston-Super-Mare. My goal was to work my way up the footballing ladder to become the best manager I could be. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here, but that’s as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the game got away from me and I didn’t have time to write about it. If you’re interested I did end up joining Forest Green Rovers, then Gillingham, and eventually Crystal Palace.

But I decided to start a new game with the Premier League’s most consistently hopeless case – Sunderland. And this time, I will keep on top of the updates. Could I be a better manager than the ghost of David Moyes that currently stalks the Stadium of Light dugout? Let’s find out!


I was not sure what to expect with Sunderland. Of course, they’re bobbins in real life, reliant on the goals of Jermain Defoe to plunder points. But sometimes Football Manager can be kind to struggling teams – I was, frankly, hoping the Sunderland researcher would have over-valued some of their players.

I’m playing on the original FM17 database, so I still have Patrick van Aanholt but lack the, er, singular talents of Darron Gibson.

david-fox_-inbox

david-fox_-inbox-2

I was not hugely impressed with what I saw. Unbalanced (four left wingers, of which an ageing Steven Pienaar was picked out as one of the best) with a lack of “quality decision making”, a “leadership void” and not enough players willing to work hard pointed to only one thing: relegation.

But in assessing the squad, I realised that all was not lost. Not quite. I picked out some key players, and promising youngsters. Ideally, I wanted to utilise young players as much as possible. If they were homegrown then so much the better.

Key Players

jermain-defoe_-overview-profile

Just like in real life, the diminutive former England frontman would be key to any hopes of survival. I knew that if we could give him opportunities, he would score.

lamine-kone_-overview-profile

Lamine Kone stood out in a squad lacking quality defenders. Relatively quick, strong and a good header of the ball, he could be key for us.

papy-djilobodji_-overview-profile-2

My coaches also rated ex-Chelsea also-ran Papy Djilobodji but his relatively poor positioning and concentration had me worried.

didier-ndong_-overview-profile

In midfield, I liked the look of club record signing Didier NDong, a hard-working midfielder with good physical attributes.

Promising Youngers

One of the things I want to do as Sunderland boss is bring through young players where I can. There are a few dotted around the squad, though the two with possibly the highest potential don’t actually belong to the club…

adnan-januzaj_-overview-profile

jason-denayer_-overview-profile

The one-time next big thing of European football, Adnan Januzaj, is slumming it with us. It’s difficult to imagine him sticking around long term even if we could afford him, but who knows? A good season might convince him to stick around instead of returning to Old Trafford to kick his heels on the bench next season. I had an early idea in my head to train him as a striker and use him as a deep-lying foil for Defoe. As well as Januzaj, we have a second loanee from Manchester, nominative determinism’s Jason Denayer. He’s pacy, which is good, and is apparently labelled as the next Vincent Kompany.

The other young starlets are all permanently at Sunderland and I wanted to try to give them plenty of game time.

jordan-pickford_-overview-profile

Jordan Pickford would start the season in goal, and would have done even if Vito Mannone didn’t start the game with a long-term injury. If his stats improve as I hope they will, he could go on to become England’s next ‘keeper. And hopefully he will do that while still in a Sunderland shirt.

paddy-mcnair_-overview-profile

A present bequeathed to me by David Moyes, ex-Manchester United utility man Paddy McNair has the potential to be a good Premier League player. Though most comfortable as a defensive midfielder, I eyed a future for him as a ball-playing centre back.

lynden-gooch_-overview-profile

OK, so the American midfielder’s mental and physical attributes need a lot of work, but I can see a future for him as an attacking midfielder. A few clubs want him on loan, but my plan is to give him some minutes off the bench, at least initially, then re-visit it in January. If he needs regular minutes by then, a loan move in the second half of the season might be a good idea.

Transfers

So, with my squad looked it, it was time to have a look at transfers. I was given a relatively generous £12m transfer budget and there was around £30k left in the wage budget, too, for a signing or two.

I had an idea in my head of playing 3-5-2, with wingbacks. My hope was that Kone, Djilobodji and Denayer had enough differing strengths to compensate for each other’s weaknesses, and I felt Defoe up front would benefit from a striker partner. The one glaring flaw in the plan was a lack of a right wing back. Both Billy Jones and Seb Larsson were out with long term injuries, and I was unconvinced by the claims of Atletico Madrid loanee Javier Manquillo. Lamine Kone could play at wing back but he was better used in the middle.

To that end, I went out and signed Rosenborg right back Jonas Svensson. Naturally fit, hard-working and with a good engine, he would be able to get up and down the flank with gusto.

jonas-svensson_-overview-profile

I was happy with Patrick van Aanholt on the left, but I had no cover in that position. Not wanting to break the bank for a back-up left wing back, I brought in German younger Jannes Horn on loan from Wolfsburg. Happily, his versatility meant he could provide cover at centre back or central midfield if needed.

jannes-horn_-overview-profile

I also brought in Diego Poyet, son of ex-Sunderland manager Gus, on a free transfer. I didn’t have a pressing need for him but he was 21, homegrown and had a lot of potential. For free, his signing was a no-brainer.

diego-poyet_-overview-profile

The other gap in the squad was up front. I had Defoe, sure, but our second best striker Fabio Borini was yet another out with a long term injury (in the treatment room alongside Mannone, Jones, Larsson and Lee Cattermole). I did have Victor Anichebe, but I knew he was injury prone too.  Also, he was not very good. I planned to give Januzaj a go up front, but behind him there was only Swedish younger Joel Asoro. The 17-year-old would be a part of my first team squad to gain experience, but was  not really ready for regular Premier League football.

I hunted around for a young striker to join my squad. Real Madrid Castilla striker Mariano was bid for on loan, but he chose a move to Sassuolo instead. Young Brazilian striker Everton rejected any move to us outright. Other bids for promising strikers across Europe were rejected or simply laughed at. In the end, I did manage to prise the wonderfully named Kevin Lasagna from Carpi. At 23, he has room to improve, but mostly solid stats across the board is a good place to start from.

kevin-lasagna_-overview-profile

Backroom Staff

I had no plans to make wholesale changes to the squad (and, frankly, good players were skeptical about joining Sunderland’s annual relegation dalliance) so I was happy with the signings of Svensson, Horn, Poyet and Lasagne. With that done, it was on to my backroom team.

I got rid of the club legend Paul Bracewell as my assistant, replacing with the Dutchman Michael Linderman. Having worked at Ajax for many years, I was hoping he could bring some of that tactical knowledge and eye for a young player to Sunderland.

michael-lindeman_-overview-profile

I also got rid of my existing Head of Youth Development and replaced him with Phil Cannon, because…well, look at those stats.

phil-cannon_-overview-profile

And, for a little sprinkling of stardust, I brought in two Premier League and England legends: Paul Scholes and Teddy Sheringham. Frankly, if my players could not learn from those two then there was no hope.

paul-scholes_-overview-profile

teddy-sheringham_-overview-profile

There we are. Transfers done (for now). Backroom team re-arranged (for now). I had, more or less, picked a formation and had a reasonable idea of my best eleven. The season loomed large. First up: a game against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, at home. Gulp.

How do the press and the bookies think we’ll do this year? Have a guess…

david-fox_-inbox-3

Part 2 will follow, covering the first month of the season. Let’s hope I can do better than real life Sunderland did in August…


If you enjoyed this, check out the rest of this blog for more articles and fiction writing. You can also reach out on Facebook and Twitter, and follow me on Medium.

If you want more stories from my weird mind, you can buy my latest short story collection Static: Collected Stories on Amazon Kindle for just £1.99.

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Football Manager 2017: The Journeyman Challenge (August, Part 2)

To read Part 1, covering pre-season and the first 4 games of August, click here. Nothing has changed here except the skin, as I opted for the default “Football Manager” one. If you want to see more detailed, high-resolution versions of the screenshots, just click on them.


“The world looks a totally different place after two wins.” – Gordon Strachan

We didn’t have two wins, but we were off the mark with our first following a 2-1 win over Poole Town. It was pleasing not just for the three points but for the fact that my misfiring lone frontman Eliot Richards bagged both goals.

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Dartford Town

I was hoping to continue in that vein with another win in another home game, this time against Dartford Town. Sticking to the old adage about not changing a winning team I stuck to the same tactics and XI. I still was not convinced about the 4-3-2-1, but I didn’t have any better ideas. And besides, it had worked last time out.

weston-super-mare-v-dartford_-overview-overview

Bloody glorious, another 2-1 win! The only slight downside was that Richards didn’t continue his goalscoring exploits (and was in fact largely anonymous) but a win is a win.

We scored with virtually our first attack, and it was a disarmingly simple goal. A throw in on the right found Jesse Kewley-Graham, who played a simple square ball to his midfield cohort Adam Pepper. From just inside the box, Pepper lashed a shot inside the near post that was too swift for the Dartford keeper to stop.

It was 2-0 just after half time, and the goal was similar. This time Heath’s throw in from the left was flicked on by Jack Maloney. Kewley-Graham collected the ball on the edge of the area and lashed a shot home.

Dartford rarely threatened, but did get a goal back inside the final 15 minutes to make things tense. Some slack passing in the centre circle saw us lose the ball, and a quick break from Dartford saw them in behind out defence. Sub Danny Harris could have scored but instead squared unselfishly for Duane Ofori-Acheampong to tap in.

The pressed for an equaliser but couldn’t create anything clear cut as we withdrew and sat deep. Their frustration told with less than ten minutes to go as Eliott Bradbook was shown red for a two-footed lunge on Mark Nisbet. After that, whatever fight they had faded away, and we held on comfortably for a second 2-1 win in a row.

Ideally I wanted another home game to continue the momentum we had built, but instead we had an away trip to Margate. Again I saw no point in chopping and changing for the sake of it so we kept the same personnel playing the same way.

Margate vs. Weston-Super-Mare

margate-v-weston-super-mare_-overview-overview

Our winning run came to an end after just two games. Everything of note happened in the first half. Margate netted from a corner – our Achilles’ Heel – when centreback Yado Mambo’s header was diverted in, virtually on the goalline, by striker Daniel Akindayini.

It didn’t take long for us to equalise. Around 10 minutes later we had the ball in the net in fortuitous circumstances. Winger Jack Maloney had a speculative long rang effort that somehow squirmed under the body of the Margate goalkeeper and into the net. It wasn’t a good goal, but I wasn’t complaining!

And that was pretty much it for the rest of the game. Maloney’s effort was the only one we could muster on target, the best we could offer was other long range potshots that sailed into the stands. Margate were much the same, though Akindayini did miss a couple of gilt-edged one-on-one chances. A 1-1 draw was fair, it was pretty obvious we were two poor teams.

Our winning run had ended, but we were still unbeaten in three. I hoped that the confidence would still be intact after early pace setters St. Albans came to visit. I had make some changes. Unforunately experienced right back Sekani Simpson suffered a cruiciate ligament injury in training that would keep him out for the rest of the season. In his place, I loaned young full back Tyler Little from Bristol Rovers. Due to tiredness I also drafted in Syd Camper at left back, and Ladjie Soukana into defensive midfield. The changes weren’t ideal, so I was worried a heavy defeat would be on the cards…

weston-super-mare-v-st-albans_-overview-overview

Well, a heavy defeat was avoided. But we still lost. In fairness, we played quite well, and created more chances than them. The real difference came in the fact that they had Louis Theophanous leading the line and we had Eliot Richards. The Welshman had another forgettable game up front, while Theophanous showed him how it was done, diverting a near post cross into the net at the stroke of half time to give St. Albans the lead.

We had chances, but they were either saved by keeper James Russell or (more often) diverted haplessly wide and/or over the bar by Richards and his cohorts out wide. A 1-0 defeat against the early league leaders was no disgrace, but it proved that I had a lot of work to do to make this side competitive, despite those two wins.

The month of August had shown that we’re a better team than the relegation certainties we were predicted to be, but that we’re also a long way off matching the league’s better sides. I knew I had plenty to do, but I was confident that at the very least, I could keep this side up. I just needed a reliable source of goals from somewhere. We had a packed September ahead – 5 league games plus the second Qualifying Round of the F.A. Cup meant our squad would be stretched to the limit. Things were about to get interesting…

Football Manager 2017: The Journeyman Challenge (Pre-Season and August, Part 1)

This is my first saved game on the Football Manger 17 Beta. I have started as an unemployed manager, a former Sunday league nobody with no coaching badges. I want to work my way up the ladder in England, either by taking a club up through the leagues or moving on myself, then maybe manage abroad. But probably not, I’m not very good.

The playable leagues I’m running are England (Vanarama North/South and above), Germany (Bundesliga only), Italy (Serie A only), Spain (La Liga only). I’m also running the following as View Only leagues: Brazil, China, France, Holland, Portugal, Scotland. The game is running on a medium database and I’m using the Football Manager Dark skin that comes with the game.

Let me know what you think in the comments, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook as I’m sure I’ll be talking all things #FM17 on there as I play.


“A jockey doesn’t have to be born a horse.” — Arrigo Sacchi

I breathed deeply, and chucked the three envelopes into the postbox. There. It was done. No going back now, even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to. No. Not at all. My sweaty palms were just because of the summer heat. Honestly.

My CV hadn’t taken long to write. How much can you say about an amateur football career ended prematurely by injury at the age of 31 and a few voluntary coaching gigs in the local community? I had sent by CV off in the hope that one of three clubs would be foolish enough to give me the job as manager. Bishop’s Stortford and Weston-Super -Mare in the Vanarama South league, and most unlikely of all, League 1’s Shrewsbury Town.

Unemployment in FM17

Sports Interactive/Sega

Shrewsbury were the first to knock me back, with a standard form letter thanking me for my interest but stating they would be moving forward with other applicants. Then, much to my surprise, both Bishop’s Stortford and Weston invited me for an interview. Being a gentleman – and being desperate for a job – I visited both clubs to discuss things.

Inexplicably, both clubs were willing to offer me the gig. Were they desperate, stupid, or just cheap and knew I wouldn’t demand much money? Who knows. After a day of deliberation, I picked Weston-Super-Mare. They had a seagull on their badge, and who doesn’t want to live beside the seaside?

The squad I inherited…well, it wasn’t great. Thankfully, the board were realistic and only asked that I avoid relegation. There were a couple of decent-ish players in there for this level, but not much to work with.

FM17 Weston-super-Mare squad

Sega/Sports Interactive

What the players lacked in talent (and boy, did they lack talent) they made up for in hard work, according to my assistant. He felt 4-4-1-1 would be a good formation to use, so I decided to use that as a base for my tactics.

FM17 Weston-Super-Mare squad report

Sega/Sports Interactive

What I needed first was more players. Leaders, maybe. Players without the first touch of a brick wall, ideally. A transfer budget of big fat zero meant my hands were pretty much tide, but a few hundred quid to spare on the wage bill meant that potentially loans, free transfers and non-contract players could be sought.

My first signing was Danny Stevens. The 29-year-old ex-Spurs trainee had league experience with Luton Town and Torquay, and his versatility (comfortable on the left or right wing) gave us options.

Danny Stevens FM17 player profile

Sega/Sports Interactive

He was followed through the door by Belal Aite-Ouakrim. The 31-year-old Moroccan had spent most of his career at Hendon without, as far as I could tell, pulling up any trees. But he added a bit of flair and technique, and could fill any of the two attacking roles in my planned 4-4-1-1.

Belal Aite Ouakrim FM17 player profile

Sega/Sports Interactive

Still my Chief Scout bombarded me with reports of players who could add something to our (frankly awful) squad. Adam Pepper, a 24-year-old central midfielder-cum-winger joined, as did promising 20-year-old centreback Josue Antonio and 34-year-old winger Tony Taggart, who was pretty good with dead balls (and not much else).

My Assistant Manager Mark McKeever saw fit to organise four pre-season friendlies. We won the first, against non-league Yate Town, 3-0. Results went downhill from there though, with defeats against three bigger sides – Aldershot, Bolton and Plymouth Argyle. I was not worried about the defeats, friendlies are all about getting fitness up and tweaking tactics.

We faced Whitehawk at home in our opening game of the season. The local newspaper claimed only 350 of our fans would be rattling around the 3,500 capacity Woodspring Stadium, and Whitehawk weren’t going to be much help either – only 10 of their fans were expected to make the trip from Brighton. My managerial career was going to be begin in absolute obscurity. But then, what did I expect? We would have to make the people of this sleepy seaside town want to see us by giving them something worth watching. I wanted that to start against Whitehawk.

FM17 first game

Sega/Sports Interactive

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Whitehawk

The day was finally here. My first ever competitive game in the dugout. Sure, no-one cared, and the staff members and subs in each dugout almost equaled the number of fans, but everyone has to start somewhere. I’m not Ryan Giggs, I can’t just demand a Premier League job.

Team Selection FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

I agonised over my team the night before the game, but decided to keep most of my raft of new signings out of the lineup to begin with. Adam Pepper was the only one to make the starting XI. Danny Stevens had a slight knock that kept him out, while Aite-Ouakrim and Taggart would both start from the bench.

Things started well. Our captain and best player – right winger Dayle Grubb – put us ahead in the first few minutes. To say it was lucky is an understatement. Grubb overhit a cross from the right hand edge of the box that sailed over the Whitehawk goalkeeper’s head and into the net.

We held a 1-0 lead until the break. With neither side creating much, but with Whitehawk presumably set to come at us in the second half, I changed to a counter attack strategy. Our lead didn’t last long. A simple corner found an unmarked Sergio Torres at the near post and he lashed the ball into the roof of the net. 1-1. The rest of the game was a ding-dong end-to-end battle of two not-very-good sides accidentally almost scoring. It was like two drunks scrapping in a pub car park. In the end, a 1-1 draw was fair.

Weston-Super-Mare 1-1 Whitehawk

Sega/Sports Interactive

Just three days later, we faced Bath City away. I tried to do what I could with the lads in training, but what I saw didn’t fill me with hope for the season ahead. They were a willing bunch, for sure, but effort only gets you so far. Thankfully the 4-4-1-1 formation did OK in the first game. We created chances, but we also gave some up at the other end.

Bath City vs. Weston-Super-Mare

I decided only to make one change ahead of this game. Jake Mawford came into central midfield for Danny Wring, who wasn’t fit enough to start. Other than that, I kept faith with the team that started last time out. Bath were a decent team. Playing an old school 4-4-2 with two out-and-out strikers up front, I knew they could cause us problems. But, still, I hoped we would cope and maybe nick a draw…

Bath vs. Weston-Super-Mare FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Cause us problems they did. If you look at the stats it was an even game. We dominated possession and even had more shots, but only 2 of ours went on target, and none in the net. Clinical Bath netted 4 of their on target efforts. And that was the difference.

Normally I wouldn’t be angry, even after a 4-0 defeat, if I felt the scoreline didn’t reflect the game. But I was angry after this one, and let rip at the players. It wasn’t so much the scoreline as the manner of the goals that angered me.

For the first, the defence went to sleep after half-clearing a corner. Bath picked up the loose ball and worked it back out the wing. The ball was fired in low and my sleeping defenders stood and watched as Stuart Wilkin slotted in at the far post. For the second my defence saw fit to leave striker Stuart Fleetwood unmarked at the near post at a corner. The third goal was a counter attack that saw my ‘keeper parry a daisy cutter out to Josh Hutchinson for a tap in, and the fourth was the crazy decision by my left back Syd Camper to bat away a lofted free kick with his hand. They scored the penalty, somehow Camper was spared a red card. Presumably the referee felt sorry for him and us.

After that crushing defeat, I did what any good manager does. I went back to the transfer market. After Camper’s moment of maddness, I signed Joe Heath, a left back to replace him.

Joe Heath profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

He was followed by French utility man Ladjie Soukouna. The fans were skeptical – Soukouna had been out of football since a spell with Plymouth Argyle back in 2011/12 season, but even after four years away I felt he could cope at this level.

Ladjie Soukouna profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

I wasn’t done there. On the recommendation of my scouts, Jack Maloney, a 21-year-old winger-cum-striker with pace joined us. As did Ben Harrison from Nantwich Town as a back-up defender, Jesse Kewley-Graham to add some attacking menace to central midfield, and the versatile ex-Maidenhead man Mark Nesbit.

Jack Maloney profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Jesse Kewley-Graham profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Mark Nisbet profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Finally, I felt like I had options everywhere. Maybe not good options, but options. Going into our third game of the season, another away fixture against Welling United, I decided to change from the 4-4-1-1. Would it give us our first win of the season?

Welling United vs. Weston-Super-Mare

With more depth in the defensive midfield position, I switched to a 4-3-2-1, with wingers and a shielding defensive midfielder.

Welling Utd vs Weston-Super-Mare

Sega/Sports Interactive

Would it bring us our first win? No. Much like the Bath game, we had more possession and more shots, but wasted our chances. Thankfully, we didn’t concede 4 this time, but one was enough to seal all three points for Welling. Once again it was from a set piece, a corner saw us beaten – yet again – to a header at the near post. 1-0 to Welling, and we huffed and puffed but could not blow their house down.

Welling Utd vs Weston-Super-Mare FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Two defeats in a row. New signings, none of whom were particularly impressing, and a formation change. Three games into the season and things already looked as though they could unravel. Tom Meechan – on loan from Newport County – had started up front in the first two games and had been largely anonymous. I started Elliot Richards in his stead against Welling, but he didn’t do much either. And according to my coaches, Richards was my best striker by far. I was not sure what to do. We needed goals, and soon.

After Welling, we returned to the Woodspring Stadium for the visit of Poole Town. They were going well, in 7th place, while we were second from bottom of the league. We needed a win.

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Poole Town

I decided to keep faith with the 4-3-2-1 and with Eliot Richards up front. It’s not as though I had any top clash finisher waiting in the wings anyway. In front of our home fans (well, a few hundred of them) I wanted a win.

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Poole Town

Sega/Sports Interactive

I wanted a win. We needed a win. And we bloody well got a win. Not only that, but Richards up front bagged a brace!

Things started off badly. Another corner. Another sloppy goal. This time Mark Nisbet misjudged a simple clearing header. The ball sailed over him into the path of onrushing midfielder James Granger, who was quickest to react to poke the ball home. 1-0.

I barely had enough time to get mad before we were level. About five minutes later centreback Josue Antonio channeled Leonardo Bonucci to bring the ball up the half way line and loft a through ball over the Poole defence. Richards rushed onto it and slotted it past the ‘keeper for 1-1.

We went in at the break level and in the second half we largely reverted to type. Nice play here and there with no end product. Eliot Richards went back to his anonymous self in the second half, before getting lucky with his second goal. Left back Heath swung a low cross in and Richards and Poole defender Jamie Whisken battled for it. Whisken stuck a leg out to clear but only diverted the ball into the leg of our falling striker. The ball bounced off him and in. He celebrated like it was the world’s greatest goal, and hell, so did I. It was 2-1. We closed out the game for a vital, memorable, much-needed three points.

Vanarama South 4 games

Sega/USports Interactive

After four games we were sitting 18th, just outside of the relegation zone. If we’re there come the end of the season, I keep my job. Dispiritingly, Bishop’s Stortford, the side I turned down, are comfortable in 6th place with two wins. The bastards.

I wanted to build on the momentum of our first win, but knew it would be tough. Up next, second place Dartford (home), mid-table Margate (away) and early leaders St. Albans City (home) would end the month.