These Toffees Might Be Quite Good Actually…

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-17-24-48So, I have played until the Merseyside Derby at the end of October, so it’s once again time to update you all on how things are going with the toffees.

The last update covered the month of September, where we defeated Middlesbrough at the Riverside, Chelsea at Goodison and West Brom at the Hawthorns. We also stumbled upon a new 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation – largely as a result of me promising Kevin Mirallas he’d be in the starting lineup when he decided to moan about being on the bench – that had helped us to those wins and brought some brilliant performances out of our central midfielders – and Mirallas. In fact, the only negative in the month was that we’d lost 1-0 to Southampton at Goodison Park. However, when you finish the month 3rd in the Premier League, you can’t complain. Of course, I’m not raising expectations just yet. Realistically, we had only faced Chelsea at that point who are really a top class side. There are many more to come.

This month we faced Swansea, Pep’s Man City and reigning champions Leicester in the league, and Crystal Palace in the League Cup. Have we managed to continue our good form? Has the 4-3-2-1 fallen to pieces? Can I list any more questions?

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Well, we’ve had a decent month, but one that I really feel we could have done better in. We opened the month with an effortless win over Swansea at the Liberty, with goals through Barkley and Mirallas – I knew he was too good to stay on the bench – who are quickly becoming our dynamic duo and our most dangerous pair. We absolutely dominated Swansea, with 67% of the ball, and only allowed them 2 shots on target in the whole game – at their ground.

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Domination.

Next up, Pep’s – until that point – perfect Manchester City side at the Etihad. Prior to the match, Pep even said that we’re a good side. That’s nice of him. Lukaku had picked up a knock in the game against Swansea, so Enner Valencia took his place in the striker role. Apart from that, it was my usual full strength side, full of central midfielders and playmakers. That’s my kind of tactic.

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Awwww, thanks Pep. Please, be gentle.

However, we surprisingly had the better of the game and the ball, and took the lead through Ross Barkley again in the 28th minute. Despite that, we never really took control of the game, and I always felt City were one good attack away from scoring. I was proved right in the 73rd minute, when we lost the ball in the centre of the park, and City countered with De Bruyne finding David Silva in the box, with Conti being forced to bring him down with a trip – somehow only getting a yellow. Fernandinho then tucked away the penalty to make it 1-1. From there, we continued to have more of the ball, but few chances came our way and the match just petered out and ended 1-1, a frustrating draw. Still, if you’d offered me a 1-1 draw before the game I’d have taken it, and it’s another match that shows the fantastic progress the team is making.

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Barkley scores again, firing in from the edge of the box to make it 1-0 against City at the Etihad.

We then welcomed Leicester to Goodison Park. We came out of the traps firing, with Mirallas continuing his good form by giving us the lead in the 14th minute, arriving late in the box to tuck in from Coleman’s cross from the right byline.When we got a pelantly in the 38th minute, I pretty much thought the game was done. However solid and dependable Leighton Baines – who has actually been slightly shaky at times this season – missed the spot kick, and we failed to kill the game off. We were looking extremely passive in the second half, so I made the stupid brave decision to increase the mentality, looking to kill the game of. Of course, Leicester then hit us on the counter in the 78th minute, and we left Goodison with a 1-1 draw that we really shouldn’t have. Leicester had 3 shots, and one of them went in. I’d say I’d been FM’ed, but it was through my own doing. I’m clearly the Kevin Keegan of Football Manager. I will love it if we beat them…Sorry.

Lastly, we played Crystal Palace in the League Cup, and with the game being 3 days before the Merseyside Derby – info on what I’m doing for that is at the end of the update – I rested everyone. With a weakened team, we promptly went 2-0 down with goals by Zaha and Benteke. Palace are like my bogey team in FM sometimes, I don’t understand why. At about 70 minutes, I decided that I wasn’t making any substitutions, and was more than happy to let the game just fizzle out. Yes, go forth my sacrificial lambs! Of course, my sacrificial lambs then scored 2 through Oviedo and Rodriguez to equalise and take the game to extra time. Lovely. Just what I needed. I decided that only Lukaku – who needed fitness having returned from injury just before the derby – would be brought on, and he came on in the 105th minute. He promptly scored 2 in 3 minutes before being subbed off, and two more from Arouna Kone gave us a 6-2 win AET. Why we suddenly exploded in extra time, I have no idea. Anyway, we’re through.

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So, before the Merseyside derby, we sit 3rd in the Premier League, 5 points behind an unbeaten Manchester City in first, and 3 points behind the also unbeaten Arsenal in second. Amazingly, 4th and 5th are Burnley and Watford. Now that we’ve faced Chelsea and City, and not lost both, I’m starting to feel more confident about our prospects this season. I’m still not going to necessarily change my expectations, but I’m starting to think that maybe European football is very possible next season. However, we still have to face other top teams like United, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool.

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Now,  speaking of Liverpool…..As I said in the previous update, I want to do something a bit more special for the first Merseyside Derby of this save. So, what I’m going to be doing before the game is an ‘interview’ with my manager. So, what I need for the interview are some questions. So, I would like you all to come up with the questions that you want my manager to answer prior to the derby. Do you want me to talk tactics? Or how Liverpool will play? Or player selection? You can send in your questions either in the comments section of this blog, or on Twitter (@JLAspey). I really look forward to seeing what you all come up with, and once I’ve got a good amount of questions, I’ll post the interview as the next update, and then the Merseyside Derby itself will form part of the proper November update, in which we’ll also play Man United, Burnley and Sunderland in the league, and we’re also in League Cup action again.

So until then, thank you very much for reading, and as always should you have any questions about the save itself or FM17, please feel free to ask in the comments section or on my Twitter (@JLAspey). Thanks again.

Lovely, Sweet Toffees

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-17-24-48So, I have very quickly reached the end of September in the Everton save – I am really enjoying this save – so it’s time to update you all once again on how things are going, and whether we’ve been able to keep up our good start.

In the last instalment of the Evertonia story, we went unbeaten through the month of August, comfortably defeating Stoke City, Bournemouth, and Crystal Palace in the Premier League on our way to 2nd in the table. The only thing even resembling a blip in the month was having to go to penalties to defeat Peterborough in the League Cup after a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes. We had also made a tactical switch, quickly ditching our 4-3-3 system we’d used in pre-season and moving to a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation, and continued our odd obsession with Italy by signing talented Croatian midfield playmaker Andrija Balic from Udinese for £11M.

So, have we managed to keep this up? Have we continued to be fighting at the top of the table, or like so often with Everton, has reality set in and pushed us back down into mid-table obscurity?

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Well, no. Not at all. Reality is quickly changing at Goodison Park, at least for now.

We opened the month travelling to the North East – Everton great Howard Kendall was from the North East as well you know? Just saying – to face Middlesbrough at the Riverside. We continued with the 4-3-1-2, but were forced into a fairly heavy rotation, with Lukaku and Valencia injured, so the front two was Arouna Kone and Leandro Rodriguez and Gareth Barry came in for the suspended Idrissa Gueye. My selection ‘policy’ was backed up in the 34th minute when Rodriguez fired past Victor Valdes – a shot that the former Barca keeper should really have saved. However, I was brought straight back to Earth when Daniele Baselli idiotically brought down Gaston Ramirez in the box. Penalty. Negredo then tucked the penalty away, and when a shot deflected in off Gareth Barry after half time, we were in trouble. I then ramped up the mentality to attacking, and within minutes we were back to 2-2 through Barkley. I then calmed things back down to control – whilst still higher than our normal ‘standard’ – and in the 84th minute Ashley Williams headed in from a flicked on corner to give us an incredibly hard fought comeback win.

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Ashley Williams heads in from Edoardo Goldaniga’s flick on to complete our comeback in the North East.

Next up was tricky Southampton – with Yannick Bolasie – at Goodison Park and well…we lost, somehow. We were by far the better team in what wasn’t a great game, but one that we definitely didn’t deserve to lose. We had the lions share of possession, and more shots than they had, but in the 92nd minute, Ashley Williams decided it was a good idea to foul a Southampton player in the box at a corner, and Charlie Austin tucked away the penalty in what must be the FM definition of daylight robbery. To say I was disgusted would be a slight understatement. We in no way deserved to win, but that hurt.

Fortunately, we then had a less important fixture to deal with in West Brom in the League Cup. I heavily rotated the side again – more than Tony Pulis – and we laboured for most of the match, having chances but failing to actually tuck them away.  Finally in the 75th minute after I had brought on Baselli, Goldaniga and Lukaku – who returned from injury against Southampton – we took the lead, as Baselli laid on a pass for Seamus Coleman – making his first start since returning from injury himself – to smash in. That part of the move was actually quite like Carlos Alberto’s goal from the 1970 final. Another goal followed in the 81st minute from Deulofeu as he fired in at the near post after a lovely through ball from Lukaku, and we secured a comfortable – in the end – 2-0 win, sending us through to the next round. Lovely. Next up, Chelsea, and yes they play 3-4-3.

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Prior to the game with Chelsea, I received this. Kevin Mirallas is not content with being a backup to Ross Barkley at Number 10. I tried to tell Mirallas that if he worked hard in training I’d give him a shot, but he wasn’t having it, and therefore I – perhaps weakly – told him that I would start him over the next few games. However, I’m not about to drop Barkley (who I’m quickly becoming quite fond of ) and he can’t play upfront, so I made the brave – probably stupid – decision to switch to a 4-3-2-1 formation, and play Barkley alongside Mirallas, with Barkley as an AP-S and Mirallas as a Shadow Striker. Lukaku then moved to a CF-A, and everything behind remained exactly the same. Barkley and Mirallas were also told to move into channels in order to give us width and create movement.

NOTE: I know I said that Barkley wouldn’t have a controlling role in midfield, but Balic and Baselli are the real controllers, Barkley just needs a creative role next to Mirallas.

So, how did things work out?

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Yeah, quite well.

2-0 doesn’t really do justice to how good a performance it was. Chelsea’s 3-4-3 didn’t cause us any problems at all, and our control of the centre of the pitch was quite outstanding. I was brave in the second half and moved the mentality up to attacking, and the speed of our attacking movement was breathtaking, and Chelsea (with a Back 3 and 2 DMC’s) simply couldn’t handle us. Mirallas more than repaid my faith in him by opening the scoring after a through ball from Lukaku, and Coleman completed his fantastic return to the side, scoring his second in the month, tucking in at the back post after a wonderful move involving Lukaku, Barkley (playing DLP-S at this point), Oviedo and Mirallas. A fantastic end to a good month for the Toffees.

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So, we end the Month 3rd in the league, three points behind an already rampant Manchester City under the maestro Pep Guardiola. At this point to still be in the position we’re in is fantastic, and the Chelsea game has given us a bit of a litmus test to see where we’re really at in comparison to the top clubs in the country. Right now, I’m chuffed to be 3rd, but I’m still being very cautious with my expectations. We’re a top half team who finished 11th last season, and we’ve only played 6 games, there’s 32 still to go. Until mid-season, I won’t even begin to start changing my aims for the season. Call me Cautious Charlie, but I always find things work out better if I don’t start expecting too much. I am delighted with the way things are working tactically, and I’m getting good performances out of every member of the first team.

Next month, we face Swansea at the Liberty, before the big test of Pep’s City at the Etihad. We then welcome champions Leicester to Goodison, and take on Palace in the League Cup 4th Round. After that, we’ve got the first Merseyside Derby of the season, and I feel like I want to do something special for that – I’ll at least be doing a tactical preview – rather than just adding it into the normal monthly update, so I’m not 100% sure whether I’ll do an update before or after the derby. Either way, thank you for reading, and if you have any questions or queries about this save, of FM17 in general, please leave them either in the comments section, or contact me on Twitter (@JLAspey). See you next month!

Building Evertonia

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-17-24-48Well, I’ve reached the end of August 2016, so it’s update time in the Everton Project. Has the Everton curse bitten me as well, or have I managed to stabilise the wobbly ship Goodison?

In the first update of the save, I covered the early decisions I’d made, and the pre-season fixtures. I had signed entirely from Italy in order to strengthen the squad before the Premier League season, bringing in Daniele Baselli from Torino, Andrea Conti from Atalanta and Edoardo Goldaniga from Palermo, reducing the serious weaknesses the squad had when I joined. We’d also had a good pre-season, comfortably defeating all the teams we faced – including Werder Bremen – before being defeated by Man United in Wayne Rooney’s testimony. Congratulations Wayne. Traitor. I also felt that our system was developing with the team naturally fitting into a 4-3-3 structure, with Baselli controlling the midfield, allowing Barkley to get forward in a Lampard-esque fashion and support Lukaku upfront.

Has this optimism continued, or have things fallen to pieces, as they have with so many others attempting to take the Toffees back to glory?

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Well, for a first month, pretty damn well. We opened the month facing Stoke City at the bet365 – oh that’s so catchy – and all my tactical confidence in the side promptly went out of the window, with the side barely being able to move the ball in the first half, let alone keep it, and we quickly went 1-0 down to Stokealona. I then quickly made the decision to switch to the formation I know best, and re-ordered the side into a 4-3-1-2 playing this lineup:

Stekelenburg; Conti, Williams, Goldaniga, Baines; Baselli, Gueye, Barry, Barkley; Lukaku, Kone

Gareth Barry therefore came into the side to play as a Deep Lying Playmaker on the left side of the diamond, and Barkley played as Number 10, still given license to penetrate through the defence as an AM-A. Lukaku was converted from a CF-S in the 4-3-3 to a DLF-S, and Kone came in as an AF-A to stretch the defence to create space for Barkley and Lukaku. This change paid dividends, as we went on to tear Stoke’s defence apart with two goals from Kone, and another from Lukaku as we won 3-1. The only issue was new signing Andrea Conti was injured in the game, and would be out until the end of the month. Brilliant.

I decided before the Bournemouth game that I would continue with the 4-3-1-2 moving forward. This meant that we needed to sign another central midfielder, with Everton simply not having enough cover there for me to realistically use it. I therefore returned to – you guessed it – Italy, and signed the Croatian maestro Andrija Balic for £11M from Udinese. As someone pointed out to me on Twitter, this is basically ‘The Italian Job’. I prefer to call it Evertonia. Balic is reminiscent of a young Modric, and should be absolutely fantastic in the DLP role on the left side of the diamond. This also coincided with Yannick Bolasie leaving the club for £19M to Southampton. This helps balance out the books, as well as preventing any issues with Bolasie not being played in a system that no longer suited him.

We then faced Bournemouth, and promptly swept them away 4-0 at Goodison Park, with a second half hattrick by Barkley from Number 10, and a fourth from substitute Leandro Rodriguez. We were incredible, only allowing Bournemouth 3 shots on target, recording 12 ourselves from 23 shots. The 4-3-1-2 worked perfectly, and Bryan Oviedo performed well enough at right back to prevent me signing Daniel Guedes from Santos. Until Coleman and Conti return from injury, Oviedo can continue at right back. Plus, I really don’t want to disrupt the – already unstable – harmony within the squad. Of course, everything wasn’t plain sailing. Romelu Lukaku went off injured in the 76th minute, and would be out for the rest of the month along with Conti.

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Ross Barkley picks up the ball from debutant Andrija Balic to make it 2-0 at Goodison Park.

We then faced Peterborough in the League Cup, and I rotated the side as much as I could, removing as many vital players as possible, giving some of the young players a chance. In classic Football Manager fashion, we then struggled, but made it through on penalties after a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes of football. Not great I admit, but I rarely put much stock in cup competitions until I actually reach a point where I can manage both league challenges and cup campaigns. Still, we should be beating Peterborough more comfortably than on penalties.

We then finished off the month travelling to Selhurst Park to face Alan Pardew’s – FM is alternative reality – Crystal Palace. Palace away is never an easy game on FM. Some of the players were struggling for fitness after the cup game – such as Ross Barkley – but I decided not to make too many changes to the first choice lineup, aside from bringing Barry in for an exhausted Balic. Enner Valencia came in to partner Aroune Kone upfront in place of the injured Lukaku. We didn’t perform anything like we had against Bournemouth, but still managed to pull out a 1-0 win, with Mirallas scoring from a cross from Baines after the Belgian had come on in place of Barkley at Number 10. There were some iffy moments – and Idrissa Gueye didn’t help us by getting sent off for a stupid second yellow card – but realistically we were never threatened by Palace, and ended the month with a perfect record. Hey, who would have predicted that?

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So, we end the month 2nd in the Premier League, with three straight wins. I don’t expect this to continue at all, but it’s good to have gotten off to a good start. However, we haven’t faced any of the bigger teams yet, and realistically we’ve won the games that we would be expected to win. The move to 4-3-1-2 was a risky move, but it appears to be one that has worked out well, and this allows me to move forward in the save using a system that I know inside out (for those of you that have recently followed this blog, I have always preferred narrow formations, and 4-3-1-2 in particular). The squad itself is only a few signings – a top strike partner for Lukaku, and some rotational options in midfield – away from being able to challenge for European qualification in a 4-3-1-2. More depth is certainly needed, but the foundation is there.

We face a busy month in September, facing Middlesbrough and Southampton in the league, then West Brom in the 3rd Round of the League Cup, before returning to the league to take on Chelsea, our first real test of the season. If we can still be in the top 8 by the end of the month I’ll be extremely happy. We’ve got a steadily growing injury problem, with Lukaku, Conti (out for a second time, this time for 4 to 5 weeks with a hernia), Valencia, McCarthy, Coleman and Robles all out, although Coleman is back in a matter of days. Not before long as well. So, I’ll update again at the end of September, hopefully still going strong in the league, and comfortably in the top half. Until then, thank you very much for reading Evertonia, and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask them either in the comments section, or by contacting me on Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again.

My Everton Project

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-17-24-48Well, I’m back, finally.

I apologise I’ve been inactive throughout the first couple of months of FM17. I’ve recently begun a training course in order to become a fully fledged History Teacher, and it has taken up so much of my time that I’ve been unable to play FM very often. However, I’m back now – thank you Christmas holidays – and I’ve got a new save to write about, the save that for some reason seems to be one of the more difficult saves you can take on in FM17. Many have tried and failed – and according to SI’s figures, many have been sacked – so it’s my turn to take on the challenge. As I’m sure you have guessed by the subtle title of this post, I’m taking on the Everton Project… and for the first time, you all get to see my lovely face in these updates – complete with odd ‘Scarface’ mark on ‘my’ left side, and weird face matching. It’s close enough.

These updates will be monthly, much like the Aston Villa updates (I’m beyond annoyed I never finished that season) on FM16. The main reason for this is I feel I can really delve into the story with monthly updates, and you as the reader get a better feel for the story and the ups and down of a season. If I just update every half-season, I often find myself forgetting the ‘downs’, and for me, that’s what makes the story. I’ve had so many comments that one of the best articles I’ve posted on this blog was the first Napoli update, where I basically outlined all the cock ups I’d made with the team, before laying out my plan to fix them.

650.pngSo why Everton? Well, largely because I’m a show off, and I want the challenge. The challenge of managing Villa was the only reason I chose to manage them last year, and I loved it. According to SI’s figures, more human managers are sacked from Everton than any other British club in the game. This makes sense when you think about it. They’ve just had a new owner come in with high expectations, but they’ve just had a distinctly average season under Roberto Martinez. They’ve also lost John Stones, and the squad has some massive holes, which I will need to fix quickly. This isn’t just a human manager issue either, and many managers have reported Everton being relegated in the first season. No pressure then, eh?

I’ll quickly mention that I haven’t done the same as Iain Macintosh and Alex Stewart in disabling transfers. I appreciate the challenge, but I’m not suicidal!

My first steps were to review the playing squad, and get an idea of how I want to play. There’s very talented players in the squad like Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas, Yannick Bolasie – who tore my Villa side to shreds last year – Leighton Baines, Sheamus Coleman and Ross Barkley. However, there’s also gaping holes, and a lot of sheer averageness. Very clearly though, the building blocks are there – even if they can be very inconsistent.

Other steps are made, particularly replacing a couple of fitness coaches and physiotherapists. I also negotiated a new contract for Ross Barkley, tying him up until 2020. I find Barkley to be too much of a headless chicken at times, and very similar to Steven Gerrard – I don’t mean that in a good way – but he’s undoubtedly a talented player, and I see him as a key member of the midfield moving forward…

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…Just not the controller of the midfield. That role will go to new signing Daniele Baselli who joins from Torino for a cut price £9.25M, a bargain shown by his in game value of £14.25M. He has the vision and passing ability I’m looking for, and has the lovely PPM of ‘tries killer balls often’, which should make him a real creative threat in midfield. Taking the creative reigns away from Barkley should allow him to really flourish and get forward. In that sense, I’m looking for him to be Lampard-esque, being the goalscoring threat from midfield, and supporting Lukaku upfront.

Another glaring weakness was at right back. Ingeniously, with Seamus Coleman out injured, Ronald Koeman decided it was a good idea to loan out all promising young right backs. Great idea, but this meant I had no-one to play right back going into the first game of the season against Stoke. Therefore, I returned to Italy and signed Andrea Conti from Atalanta for £3.8M. He’s intended to be just a backup to Coleman, and to fill in for the Irishman until he returns in 3-6 weeks, but his early performances have been absolutely outstanding.

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The last obvious weakness was centre back, with Ashley Williams the only option I really trusted there, along with the ageing Jagielka and Funes Mori. Therefore, as an early insurance policy, I returned to Italy – I promise you I’m not just signing Italians – and signed Edoardo Goldaniga from Palermo for £11M, taking my Summer spending to a hefty £24.somethingM (although this was offset by the £7M and £2.5M sale of Tom Cleverley and Baye Niasse respectively). All three are young and Italian and should fit nicely into the system that I want to play. I’ll cover the system itself when I’m sure that it’s going to be the system moving forward, rather than spending a long time describing it, before having it go to pieces once we start the competitive league games. So, how has pre-season gone?

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Well, results and performances through pre-season have been promising. A – eventually – comfortable 5-0 win over Warriors FC from Singapore was followed by a 3-1 victory over former European giants Stade de Reims, with goals from Oviedo and Bolasie. We then effortlessly beat Bremen 4-1 at Goodison Park, with Lukaku opening the scoring, and Barkley scoring two from midfield, really looking suited to his new role, before Mirallas made it four before half time. This was then followed up by another four goal performance against De Graafschap of Holland, with pacey winger Aaron Lennon giving us the lead in the 9th minute, before two from Bolasie and another from Funes Mori gave us a fourth straight comfortable win.

Next up was Wayne Rooney’s Testimony, and to say thanks to the former Everton player, I put out our strongest current lineup of (in a 4-3-3 system):

Stekelenburg; Conti, Williams, Goldaniga, Baines; Gueye, Barkley, Baselli; Deulofeu, Bolasie, Lukaku.

Yeah, I was there to spoil Wayne’s party. That’ll teach him to leave Merseyside. Traitor. We actually took the lead through Bolasie in the 55th minute, but United had to go and ruin my spoiling party by equalising through Lingard, and then taking the lead through Fellaini to win 2-1, and send the Old Trafford faithful – and Rooney – home happy. However, I was more than happy with the performance, and we had several chances that on another day we could have finished to win the game. If we can perform like that in the league, we’ll have absolutely no issues this season.

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Barkley tucks in his second against Werder Bremen to make it 3-0 to the Toffees.

Speaking of this season, all I’m really looking for is a comfortable top half finish. I don’t expect us to be pushing for Europe at this point, but somewhere from 10th upwards would do me nicely, and give me a good foundation with which to build for the coming seasons. Fingers crossed, that should be enough to keep my job. However, I know not to take anything for granted with Everton. I’ve seen how quickly things can turn. My only slight concern is Lukaku hasn’t exactly been banging them in throughout pre-season, but then I’ve been careful with how I’ve used him, aware we’re going to rely on him this season. The goalscoring output from the wingers and from midfield has been promising, and tactically, we’re looking good so far.

So that’s all I can update you on at this point. I will update again at the end of August, and we open our campaign with three games against Stoke, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace – with only the Bournemouth game being at Goodison – most of which I would expect positive results from. There’s also a League Cup – I refuse to call it anything else – game to navigate in there, and the transfer window to see out. As long as we hold on to key players – Lukaku in particular – I’m very happy with the squad for this season. Only injuries or tactical issues would force me to make any further signings. So until then, thank you very much for reading, and it’s good to be back! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section of this blog, or contact me on Twitter (@JLAspey).

Turning The Tide

R24Shirt1So, it’s time for the February update of the Aston Villa save. Last month was – to say the least – a bad month for our Villa side. The proposed Steve Tomlinson(?) takeover fell through, Randy Lerner wouldn’t give me anything to buy or even sign players (meaning I ended the month having signed no-one to help us ensure safety), Gabby Agbonlahor just wouldn’t take the hint and leave, and we plummeted from 12th to 16th by the 31st, losing to Man City and Arsenal in the league, before crashing out of the FA Cup in the 3rd round – perhaps a blessing in disguise – to city rivals West Bromwich Albion. We manage to stem the tide at the end of the month by drawing with a weakened – and managerless – Chelsea (they’ve since appointed David Moyes), but it was still a shocking month by all accounts. Let’s hope February is an improvement.

This month, we’d face Newcastle United, Crystal Palace and Leicester City. However, first off it was Liverpool again, this time at Villa Park. *gulp*. Just what we need. Liverpool have sacked Jurgen Klopp since the last time we played them – the players citing a lack of confidence in him – and replaced him with Rudi Garcia. However, they’ve remained mid table, and aren’t in great form. However, firstly, I received this little gem of a message.

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Awwww, thanks Idrissa, you’re alright.

Clearly the players are behind me at least, even if the chairman won’t let me keep this shell of a once great football club in the Premier League. Mind, I haven’t actually received a contract offer yet, so hopefully it’s incoming fairly soon. Otherwise, I’ll look a bit silly. If it doesn’t Randy, expect incoming Benfica curses. Anyway, moving back to the important factors – how have the month’s results been?

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Pretty damn good actually. We opened the month with Rudi Garcia’s Liverpool coming to Villa Park, and stunningly (at least to me) defeated them 1-0, the result going completely against the form we’d had – or not had – throughout January. It was former Barcelona player Adama Traore who stepped up to give us the goal we needed, putting in a rebound from a Jordan Ayew shot. Traore has massively benefited from the move to a more attacking 4-3-3, playing as an out and out winger out on the right flank. He’s encouraged to use his pace and put crosses in, and is getting better and better as the season goes on. He’s not the most talented of players, but he reminds me of Biabiany on FM14, who was unplayable at times. Once we’d gained the lead, we continued to create chances – and Ayew again failed to convert them – but when the final whistle went, I was ecstatic. I’ll take wins wherever I can get them.

Prior to the next game against Tim Sherwood’s Newcastle United, I had a much needed word with Ayew, and told him that I had faith in him to convert his chances and get back to scoring goals. It certainly worked, as Ayew put in a fantastic performance at St. James’ in a 3-1 win, scoring two goals and setting up another. Although in fairness, his assist to Traore wasn’t a proper assist, with Traore ‘crossing’ from 40 yards out and lobbing the keeper. However, I’m going to pretend that Traore meant it. He’s that good (he isn’t really). Ayew added the second in the early part of the second half after a wonderful pass by Carles Gil, and even though Aly Cissokho got himself idiotically sent off for a pointless second yellow card, I simply withdrew a striker, playing a wonderfully negative 4-5-0 in a desperate bid to hold on. Ten minutes later, Ayew added another from a set piece, and we came away with our second win in a row, something we hadn’t done since September – ironically against Liverpool and Newcastle.

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Jordan Ayew’s bad run comes to an end, latching on to Carles Gil’s through ball.

Next up, Crystal Palace on Valentines Day. Jordan Amavi came in for Cissokho, but apart from that it was an unchanged side – at this point I’m fairly comfortable with my first choice XI – to face Pardew’s lot. It was Ayew yet again who got us the win, meeting a byline cross from Traore – who had beaten his marker and run half the pitch – and tucking the ball into the corner. It was another well deserved win, and a dominant one at that. We had 60% of the ball, and created far more chances than Palace – a stark contrast to when we played them earlier in the season. Three wins on the bounce, the most we’ve managed during my tenure – and probably the most Villa have managed in years  – and we looked to be in a very good position, rocketing up to 9th in the table! Who’d have thought that after our horrendous January?

Of course, we then came crashing down to earth against 4th placed Leicester, with Mahrez and Vardy tearing our – still shocking – defence to shreds. We irritatingly conceded just before half time, and when the second went in in the 63rd minute, I decided to cut my losses and move to the 4-1-4-1, and just be content with the defeat. I wasn’t about to have us be destroyed, and have morale crash like it did after the Spurs game in November. It got us over the line with a 2-0 defeat, and although it was an incredibly negative move, I have to think of our bid to stay up and the importance of goal difference with all the teams so close in terms of points. Although it’s been a fantastic month, it just shows us how far we still have to go.

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I’m also continuing my attempts to get rid of Gabby Agbonlahor and his ridiculous £55k per week salary. I know N’Zogbia is leaving at the end of the season, so that will at least free up some cash, but I’d ideally love to get rid of this utter waste of space too. However, I keep repeatedly seeing this above every time Cardiff make a bid for him. At this point I’m offering him out for £100k, I’ve kept him on the bench, I’ve told him to get in contact with clubs, and he still won’t get the message. I refuse to keep him until 2018, soaking up my wage budget. He has to go.

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So, we end February of 2016 in 10th place, a massive improvement from 16th at the end of January. It just goes to show how close the league is from mid table down to the bottom half that three wins and a defeat has taken us up a massive 6 places, and we’re now only 3 points off the Europa League places. Of course, I don’t expect us to progress any further up the table, but at least the gap isn’t so great. Jordan Ayew has started scoring again – he’s carried the load all season – and the 4-3-3 really seems to be working for us, allowing us to get support to Ayew more quickly, and giving balance to our 3 man midfield of Gueye, Westwood and Veretout. With 3 months to go, I’m now really starting to feel confident that we’re going to be safe, and a couple more decent months should see us playing Premier League football next season. We just need a new Chairman, more money, and some better players. But hey, baby steps.

So until the end of March, thank you very much for reading, and as always if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to make them on this blog, or contact me via Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again.

The Winter of Our Discontent

R24Shirt1So, January is done and dusted and it’s time to update you once again on the Aston Villa save as we begin 2016 and the second half of the 2015/16 season. Last month, we continued to chop and change tactically, using a counter attacking diamond at the start of the month, before finally finding a 4-3-3 that seemed to work well and fit our – exceedingly average at best – players very well. This led us to end the month back in our favourite spot of 12th, after beating Sunderland and Watford, and drawing with Swansea, Watford and Southampton. An expected 1-0 defeat to Slaven Bilic’s West Ham was the only blip on what was otherwise a very positive month for the claret and blue.

Furthermore, I’d also had the pleasing – and relieving – news that a takeover bid had been made by ‘Steve Tomlinson’. Yes, the much awaited takeover was here. All the money that was about to roll into our club, allowing me to actually make proper signings, imagine that! Unfortunately, a transfer embargo had immediately been put in place, meaning that as January started, I was unable to sign players at all, even Bosmans. Oh, and our games in January? Man City, West Brom in the FA Cup, Arsenal and Chelsea. Oh dear. Colour me worried.

However, first of all I received some news. Bad news.

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Randy, please just go. Please.

Yep, the takeover isn’t happening. As unhappy as I was with the timing of the takeover, it was badly needed because Randy Lerner has turned the taps off, and there’s nothing coming through. I was absolutely gutted when these messages came through. Still, it at least meant that the transfer embargo was lifted, and I could start and bring in players to help with the second half of the season, and the push for safety.

Except, I couldn’t. Having used up the budget to sign Diego Falcinelli as backup to Jordan Ayew (and occasional strike partner), Mr. Lerner simply wouldn’t let me have any more money. Nothing. There’s no room in the ridiculously low wage budget, and even when I pleaded with him to come up with the money for players, he refused every time. I tried to sell the deadwood again in order to raise some cash (mainly through wage adjustments), shopping Gestede, Agbonlahor and N’Zogbia – on a combined £140k per week – but every time I’d have a fee agreed, Agbonlahor and N’Zogbia would turn down the contract they were offered, so I’m stuck with them. Gestede had Sunderland interested, but they never even bid, despite me offering him out for peanuts. This meant there was no room in the wage budget to sign Bosmans – none of the promising ones wanted to come to Villa Park anyway – and all my attempts at signing players on loan – notably Jeffrey Gouweleeuw and Kyle Walker – were turned down because players simply think Villa are worthless right now. To be honest, they’re not that wrong.

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Thanks for the help. Thanks a bunch. The story of our transfer window.

So, I have (almost) ended the January transfer window, and I haven’t been able to do a thing. My hands are tied, and although I can spot the players we need to improve the squad, I either can’t bring them in, or they simply don’t want to come. We’re both poor (there’s barely anything positive in the bank) and rubbish. For now, it is a very, very vicious circle. Anyway, moving back to the things that really matter for my Villa side, results.

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It’s been a tough month to say the least. I stuck with the 4-3-3 that had worked so well last month as we welcomed City to Villa Park, and we absolutely dominated them, played some lovely football, and lost 1-0. We had 3 clear cut chances and 4 half chances, but we just couldn’t score for love nor money. Aguero scored in the 23rd minute, and as good as we were – it was one of our best games of the season – we just didn’t score that important goal, and came away with no points. That is the difference in quality between us and the teams further up the league. Still, this at least gave me confidence as it was a genuinely good performance.

Next up was West Brom in the West Midlands Derby in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup. Yet again we played very well, with our attacking players again having a good game. However, it was the defence which massively let us down, repeatedly being unable to cope with Salomon Rondon, and two goals gave them a victory that they really didn’t deserve, and we crashed out of the Cup immediately. Again, we were unable to make the most of our chances, and I was starting to notice that Jordan Ayew wasn’t scoring. He’s carried the load for us this entire season in terms of goals, and it was clearly starting to take its toll. Still, this leaves us out of both cup competitions, at least meaning we can solely focus on the Premier League. Silver linings and all that…

Then, table topping Arsenal at the Emirates. It never rains, but oh my god, does it pour. We certainly played well against Arsenal, actually taking the lead in the 6th minute before Arsenal’s quality shone through, but it was simply a case of the better team with much better players playing better football. We kept the game close all the way to the final kick – which was Sanchez making it 4-2 with a back post header – but in reality we were never anywhere near Arsenal’s quality. They’re competing with Spurs up at the top of the table, we’re competing with Watford et al. down at the bottom. It was a match that reflected how far we have to go. We weren’t bad at all, but Arsenal are just so much better. Ayew didn’t score either, but did provide the assist for our first goal. However, I still took him off after 66 minutes and a 6.6 rating.

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Carles Gil finishes Jordan Ayew’s through ball to put us 1-0 up against Arsenal.

We ended the month going back home  to Villa Park to face Chelsea, who had just sacked Guus Hiddink, languishing down in the Europa League places. He’d been replaced by caretaker Steve Holland. This was probably the best time we could get Chelsea, and we battled to a 0-0 draw that at least stopped the losing run we’ve been on throughout the month. Ayew had another poor game and didn’t score, but the defence were fantastic, with the back 4 and Gueye at DM all getting above 7 for average rating. It’s a point, and after the month we’ve had, I’ll take it. However, I really need to have a word with Ayew.

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So, we end January all the way down in 16th. We’ve been well and truly dragged into the mix as a result of our own incapability and inability to strengthen – thanks again Randy. We now sit only one point above the relegation zone on 27 points, with Southampton 18th on 26 points. However, as you can see from the teams above us, the gap to mid table is literally just a win away. As you’ve seen from the way we’ve plummeted to 16th from 12th in one month, all it takes is one good run and a few good results to send us moving back up the table. Plus, when you consider that this month has featured the majority of the horrible run that we started the season with – City, Chelsea and Arsenal – we’re almost over the worst and hopefully can begin to pick up points over the next few months and ensure safety. I know it looks bad right now, but I have faith that we can sort this out. February features Liverpool, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Leicester, games that we’re going to stand a much better chance in.

So until the end of February – and hopefully a much better month – thank you very much for reading this latest Aston Villa update, and as always if you have any suggestions on tactics, signings or just general feedback, please do feel free to leave a comment on this blog, or contact me via Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again.

Back On Track?

R24Shirt1So, I’m making rapid progress through the months in this Aston Villa save. It’s now the end of December and the year 2015, so it’s time to update you all again on how things are going, and whether I’ve managed to stabilise the – admittedly wonky – claret and blue vessel. In the last update, we stumbled inconsistently through November, getting absolutely hammered 6-1 by Tottenham, beating West Brom 3-0 in the West Midlands Derby before ending the month with an extremely fortunate 2-2 draw with Everton. I’d also started to mess around tactically as a result of the 6-1 – perhaps the wrong thing to do, but I’m stuck with it now – in order to find a better alternative. The 4-1-4-1 works in certain circumstances, but I’m finding it very hot and hold. Like our form then.

December would see us go through 6 games against Sunderland, Swansea, West Ham, Watford, Southampton and Watford again. Several of those are big matches, particularly the ones with Sunderland – rooted to the bottom of the table – and Watford, themselves struggling in the relegation zone.

I’d also seen that the much awaited takeover appeared to be on its way, receiving messages that a bid was rumoured to be about to be tabled. Through the month of December, I then received this:

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It’s here.

Yep, it’s here. The much needed takeover has arrived in the form of Steve Tomlinson(?). As a result, a transfer embargo has been placed on us. Fantastic. Great timing Steve. Cheers. This has meant the month of December – and therefore the important January transfer window – has ended with my hands tied and unable to do anything. Hopefully the embargo clears soon enough, and I’ll actually be able to make moves in January. We need it, as well as important Bosman signings for next season.

Anyway, back to December, an important month. How have things gone? Have we ended up in 12th again?

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Well, quite positively actually, although it’s been more difficult that those results would have you believe. I opened up the month switching formations – again – this time going to a counter attacking diamond with Ayew being partnered upfront by Falcinelli (who’s been largely useless so far), and it got us the win against Sunderland in a big match that eventually led to the sacking of Big Sam. The goal that won us the game wasn’t from open play mind, with Falcinelli scoring his first goal for the club from the penalty spot. However, I believed that the diamond had showed me enough to encourage me to keep going with it in the next game, particularly the performance of Grealish from Number 10, getting a 7.8 rating and the Man of the Match.

We then went to the Liberty to face Swansea and came away with a pleasing 1-1 draw. We took the lead through Ayew (of course), running onto a through ball from wing back Jordan (we have a lot of players called Jordan don’t we?) Amavi and tucking it away. We were later pulled back with a goal from Sigurdsson following some pretty shoddy pressing that left him wide open in the box. In the end, a 1-1 draw was a very fair result, and considering the difference in quality between us and the Welsh side, I’m more than happy with a point.

Feeling confident, I then continued with the diamond against West Ham, and promptly lost 1-0, having more shots than West Ham, but largely from long range. On top of that, Grealish got himself injured yet again, going down with another twisted knee – which seems to be a very common injury on FM16 – meaning that we were running out of potential options for Number 10. Furthermore, I also hadn’t been that convinced by the diamond, so decided to make a switch for the next match. It was clear that elements of the 4-1-4-1 were working, but that at times Ayew as the CF-S was far too isolated. Although I wanted us to retain our shape in defence, I didn’t want Ayew just left by himself upfront.

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Therefore, I switched to this for the match against Watford. It’s largely the same idea as the 4-1-4-1 – support roles on the wide players will cause them to track back more – and many of the roles are the same, but the intention is to get help to the lone forward quicker. It also utilises Adama Traore in the winger role, the role he’s best suited to. Traore’s wide positioning should also create space for Jordan Veretout to exploit breaking forward. With Ayew creating space upfront, and an IF-S on the left side cutting in, and a playmaker in central midfield, there should be plenty of movement to create chances.

However, it started slowly against Watford in its first game, only gaining us a 0-0 draw against a relegation zone side. However, I believe this was largely due to my selections. Grealish was unavailable, so I played Falcinelli on the left, Ayew upfront, and Carles Gil as a CM-A, and it just didn’t seem to work at all. Falcinelli didn’t provide anything going forward, and Gil ended the match with a 6.2 rating. Still, it was a point, and I’ll take points where I can get them.

However, we then faced Southampton, at that point ahead of us in the table. I played the lineup to the left, and we played far better – especially when I brought on Gil to replace the useless Sinclair at IF-S – having the better of the game, with Traore scoring in the 74th minute. Unfortunately, we’re Villa and we can’t defend, and gave up a 90th minute goal to Juanmi, but we had 60% of the ball, and actually dominated the game against Southampton. I’m not necessarily looking to dominate the ball, but I’m not going to turn it down if we can control possession.

Next up was Watford again, and we comfortably defeated them 1-0. We can’t score lots of goals because again, we’re Villa, but we played extremely well, having 61% of the ball – again, I’m not going to turn down the ball – and went 1-0 up through Carles Gil after an extremely well worked move between Gil, Cissokho and Sanchez (playing the DLP role), and never relinquished the lead. We looked very good, and thoroughly deserved our win in one of our best performances of the season thus far.

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Carles Gil finishes off a lovely move to give us the 1-0 win over Watford to end 2015.

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So, we end 2015 in 12th place – yes, again – surrounded by teams like City, Liverpool, Newcastle (who sacked McClaren and hired Tim Sherwood, and have drastically improved), West Ham and Southampton. We’re 6 points away from the drop zone, but only 4 points off Everton in 6th. Considering what was expected at the start of the season, I will absolutely take that at the halfway point. Now it’s important that we get that bloody embargo cleared, and add a couple of signings – that’s if I’m allowed any cash! – to ensure that we’re strong enough to stay in the league, and good enough to progress next season. At this point, the absolute priority is centre back. I’ll be very disappointed if I come out of the window having not been able to sign one. After that, the priorities are right back and left wing (I don’t really feel Gil or Grealish are the long term options there, and I actually see Grealish becoming the CM-A). I’ve also had word that Dinamo Moscow are interested in Agbonlahor. Please Dinamo, come take him and his £55k per week off my hands. Still, the whole window seems to depend on whether this takeover goes through. Come on Steve, get on with it.

So until the end of January, that’s all I can update on in the Villa save. I hope you are enjoying reading this, and I welcome any feedback, whether it be on my writing, or the way I’m playing the game itself, tactics or signings. As always, should you have any questions or queries, please feel free to comment on this blog, or contact me via Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again.