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.

The November Blues

R24Shirt1So, it’s update time again with Aston Villa, and time to cover the month of November. Last month, we faced Stoke, Bournemouth, Norwich and Manchester United, beating Stoke 3-0 at their place before losing to Bourmemouth and drawing with Norwich and United. I was also beginning to analyse where I needed to invest in the January transfer window, and trying to figure out whether the issue was at right back (aka Leandro Bacuna) or centre back (aka any of them). We ended the month yet again in 12th place, and I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever do well enough – or indeed badly enough – to finish the month anywhere else.

November looked like a fairly quiet month on paper, with only Tottenham, West Brom – the West Midland derby – and Everton to play. However, I can say that it’s been anything but quiet, and has thrown my tactical plans into jeopardy, to the point where I’ve spent the majority of the month chopping and changing – something I would never advise you to do on Football Manager – in a desperate attempt to find something that works. Unfortunately, that search is ongoing.

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The takeover is on it’s way. Hurry up, please.

Firstly, we had these little nuggets towards the start of the month. Yes, Lerner’s shopping the club and an offer has been made. Fingers crossed this goes through, because the squad is just simply not good enough beyond the few good players who are in the first team, and we need an influx of cash to be able to make moves in the January window.

Anyway, back to the month’s results. How have things gone?

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Well, inconsistently to say the least. Naturally keeping faith with the counter attacking 4-1-4-1 that has served us so well over the past few months, we went to White Hart Lane to face title challenging Tottenham and proceeded to get absolutely battered 6-1, never even looking close to Spurs. We eventually got a consolation through Jordan Ayew in the 72nd minute, but by then Spurs were four up, and went on to score another two through Heung-Min Son and Alderweireld to complete what was an utter embarrassment, and one of the biggest defeats I’ve had in years on Football Manager.

After that utter drubbing, I then – perhaps rashly – made the decision to switch tactic, and moved to a Back 3, feeling that more defenders were badly needed. However, that idea was quickly destroyed at 1-0 in the derby when Gueye moronically got himself sent off for attempt to detach a West Brom player’s leg. I then switched to a more traditional 3-5-1 and two set piece goals gave us a 3-0 win. Of course, I was more than happy with the 3 points, but I didn’t for one minute think that it was as a result of the tactic I was using. What’s more, Leandro Bacuna went off injured, at least meaning that I could analyse performances in terms of leaking goals for the rest of the month, and try and see whether the real issue is at centre back. At the same time, it also meant I was left playing Alan Hutton at right back. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

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Grealish smashes in from the edge of the box, beginning a 3-0 victory in the West Midlands Derby.

I was proved right that the Back 3 tactic wasn’t the answer within about 10 minutes of the game against Everton, where they tore us to shreds. I very quickly switched to a more compact 4-2-3-1 with two DM’s, before later moving the wide players back to the MR/L strata. It got us a 2-2 draw, but we didn’t play well and were totally outplayed by Everton and their wing combination of Mirallas and Deulofeu. Still, one point against 3rd placed Everton isn’t something I’d have turned down before the game, but the sheer lack of quality in our performances is worrying. Irritatingly, Jordan Veretout – who had begun to regain his place in central midfield – went off injured, and will be out for three weeks. For heaven’s sake. It’s starting to feel like FM has it in for my Aston Villa.

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So as November ends, we find ourselves not in 12th! Unfortunately, we’ve slipped slightly down the table to 13th, but hey, at least it’s different. Still, a win a loss and a draw isn’t too bad for the month in terms of results, but it’s the effect that the loss – understatement of the year – to Spurs has had on morale and the knock on effect that the result had in terms of tactics that is concerning me. I’m now very unsure whether to continue with the 4-1-4-1, or whether to try to build something new. Either way, I need to figure things out fast, as December features 6 games against Sunderland, Swansea, West Ham, Watford, Southampton and Watford again, all in the league, and all crucial to how we stand going into the second half of the season. I’m also hoping that this takeover goes through quickly, because I’m now certain that we badly need to improve at centre back with how we’ve leaked goals throughout the month. Joleon Lescott has been our best centre back, but even he hasn’t been outstanding, averaging below 7 for the season. Of course, I’d also like to improve on Bacuna and his 9 tackling – we’re still shipping most of our goals from our right flank – but for now his 7.02 average rating is less offensive than the dross I get from the centre backs at times.

So, until the end of December, thank you very much for reading again. Hopefully I’ll return having sorted out what’s happening tactically, and continuing our strong push to finish 12th again. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask me on Twitter (@JLAspey) or in the comments section of this blog. Thank you again.

Missed Opportunities

R24Shirt1Well, I’m making good progress in this Aston Villa save, and I’ve now reached the end of October, so it’s update time again. In the last update, you saw that we finished the month 12th -again – in the Premier League, and had happily gone out of the League Cup to Tottenham 1-0 in extra time. We’d had an up and down month in the league, beating Newcastle 3-0, before losing to Palace and bouncing back to salvage a draw against Leicester. However, we had also lost one of our best players to injury along the way in Jack Grealish. He would be out for 3 weeks with a twisted knee, and we would have to make do without him for the majority of October. This really left striker Jordan Ayew as the only player I really felt could win us a match. However, we did find that Ashley Westwood was the English – not Welsh – Xavi, playing so well in midfield that he’s retained his position even with the return of Veretout.

Our fixtures this month were Stoke (sitting 3rd in the league by kick off), Bournemouth, Norwich and Manchester United. Not an easy month, but for sure there were chances to pick up points, particularly against Bournemouth and Norwich.

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The month as a whole was classic Villa (at least so far for me) really. We opened the month with an outstanding performance against Stoke, tearing them apart with goals from Jordan Ayew and Carles Gil. Ayew scored the first after Gil managed to slip the ball into him in the six yard box, and our top striker – by a country mile – had no trouble tucking it into the corner. Gil scored the second late on when we capitalised on a poor clearance which fell to Gil, and he smashed it straight into the top corner to give us the 2-0 win. Considering Stoke were 3rd in the league coming into the game, I was absolutely chuffed with this result.

Of course, we’re Villa, and we came crashing back down to earth after the international break with a terrible 1-0 home defeat to Bournemouth, where we simply didn’t turn up. Callum Wilson gave our defence – which still looks shaky – serious problems, and the 4-1-4-1 did nothing for us in attack. I brought on Falcinelli and switched to the 4-4-2 late on, and we created a few extra chances – perhaps suggesting to me there’s a few teams I can allow us to be more open against – but in the end, we didn’t really deserve anything from the game. What really didn’t help was Joleon Lescott being an absolute plank and getting himself sent off for a second yellow 6 minutes after they scored. It was all uphill from there.

Next up, Norwich at Carrow Road. Norwich were 9th going into the game, doing very well on the back of wing play from Nathan Redmond, who thus far has been one of the league’s best players. As a result, I switched the WB-S at left back back to a FB-S to prevent any space being left behind him for Redmond to exploit. It certainly worked, with Redmond being subbed off at half time after doing nothing, and we took the lead after Ashley ‘Xavi’ Westwood played a lovely one-two with Ayew and clattered the ball past Ruddy to give us the lead. However, in what is starting to become a theme, we couldn’t hold on with Norwich really flooding forward, and Patrick Bamford equalised in the 83rd minute, latching on to a hopeful pass by Tettey and calmly finishing past Guzan. Sigh. Lost points for sure. Just to compound things, Carles Gil went down with an injury in the 23rd minute. Shin splints, and he would be out for 3-4 months, or 5-6 weeks should I pay for a specialist. With how important Gil has been this season from the right flank, I need him back as soon as possible. He’ll see a specialist, thank you.

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For heaven’s sake.

The last game of the month was not what we needed. United visiting Villa Park. We were 14th going into the game, and in serious danger of slipping down the table if we’d lost the game. Gladly, it was the good – ok, decent – Aston Villa that turned up, and we actually took the lead through Jack Grealish, cutting inside to meet a Carlos Sanchez through ball, and we went into the half time break 1-0 up against 3rd placed Manchester United. I told the lads to keep their concentration, but the lead didn’t last long, and in the 53rd minute Ashley Young lumped a cross into the box, meeting Rooney’s run from deep, and United were level again. Fortunately, we managed to hold onto the point, but again I had the feeling it could have been so much more. Apart from Rooney’s goal, United didn’t create anything – art imitating life? Still, if you’d offered me a draw with United, I’d have taken it. We just can’t keep throwing points away.

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Grealish puts us 1-0 up against Manchester United.

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I’m also at the point where I’m starting to really consider where (if Mr. Lerner will let me) I’m going to make any moves in the January transfer window. My feeling – simply from watching the highlights in game – is that the defense is the area that is in most need of upgrading, with the midfield doing decently well, and Jordan Ayew doing fantastically upfront, with Falcinelli as backup.

My first port of call is to see where we’re leaking goals from. On the left you can see where our opposition are assisting from, and it appears our right flank is the weak link. This will of course need further investigation, but my initial reaction is that Leandro Bacuna at right back is the issue. With only 9 for tackling and a few other weak attributes, this would make sense. However, it could also be that the crosses are coming from there, but they’re not being dealt with properly by our centre backs. I’m going to analyse this further in the coming months, and see where I need to invest in a few months time. Either way, I do think I’ll be looking at bringing in either a right back or a centre back in January.

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So, we finish the month of October still in 12th place. I think we’ve just decided this is where we’re finishing and it’s where we’re going to stay. Still, I’m more than happy with 12th place, and when you look at the teams around us like Liverpool, Southampton and Man City, we can’t be doing that badly eh? Next month is a very quiet month in the Premier League, as we face Spurs, Everton, and West Brom in the West Midland Derby. Spurs and Everton should be very tough games (2nd and 6th respectively), but I really fancy us to take 3 points against West Brom, who are currently sat in the relegation zone in 19th. Hopefully we can at least take those 3 points, and then move into the really important month of December, with 6 games to play over Christmas and New Year. No leftovers for us.

So until then, thank you very much for reading another Aston Villa update. I hope you’re enjoying reading this save, and as always, if you have any questions or comments to make regarding the save or the side, then please feel free to ask in the comments section, or contact me on Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again.

The Ayew & Grealish Show

R24Shirt1Well, September is over in the Aston Villa save, so it’s update time again. In the last update we covered August, the anti-climactic end of the transfer window, and our start of the season that included Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. Easy. Then again, there aren’t many easy games for Aston Villa anyway, as the real life side showed this past season. I wouldn’t have been surprised had we come out of the month bottom of the table with nul points.

However, we actually came out of the month sitting 12th in the Premier League table, having drawn with City at the Etihad after Kompany got himself sent off – admittedly meaning we are as good as 10 City players – and beaten Liverpool 3-2 at Anfield, with Jordan Ayew tearing Skrtel and co. to shreds. Added to a very respectable 1-0 loss to Chelsea and a tactically important 2-0 loss to Arsenal that led me to move to a 4-1-4-1, and things were actually looking up for Villa. Next up, Newcastle, Palace, Spurs in the League Cup and Leicester. So, how did we do?

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Well, not bad really, although I feel we’ve missed opportunities here. We opened up the month inviting Newcastle to Villa Park, and promptly demolished them, with goals from Sanchez – from a frankly ridiculous 35 yard assist from Grealish – Ayew (after a through ball from Ashley ‘Xavi’ Westwood – who replaced the injured Veretout fantastically) and Bacuna. In reality, Newcastle never even got a look in, and they ended the month in the relegation zone. Looks like McClaren is well on his way to the sack in this virtual reality as well. Hopefully I can nab a fair few of the players I loved with Newcastle.

We then travelled south to London to face Palace, themselves in the relegation zone at the time. We took the lead early on through Jordan Ayew – who else – but were quickly pegged back after some shocking defending at a corner. The game then took a wild swing in Palace’s direction. With us on the attack, the ball was played out wide to Grealish who just stopped and pulled up. He was unable to continue, our most talented player, and would be out for 3 weeks with a twisted knee. However, that wasn’t the only issue, as Yannick Bolasie – the scumbag – picked up the ball, didn’t put it out of play, ran down the flank that Grealish would have been covering, and crossed the ball from the byline for Sako to put Palace ahead 2-1. After that I tried to even things up through some changes, but Palace scored a 3rd in the 90th minute, and we came away from Selhurst Park with a poor 3-1 loss.

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Grealish pulls up as Bolasie motors away, crossing to put Palace 2-1 up.

Next up was Spurs in the League Cup. I rested a fair few players – although due to injuries had to irritatingly play some first choice players – thinking of the fixture against Leicester a few days later. Of course, FM wouldn’t let us just simply go out of the cup, and had us go to extra time – tiring out a few first team regulars – on the way to a 1-0 loss through a late goal. At least let us get to penalties.

So our tired first team players then trudged into a game three days later against the real life Premier League champions, who are lower than we are in this reality. Leicester went 1-0 up through Vardy (who else?) and continued to pummel our goal, before a shocking mistake from their defenders allowed Ayew the ball around the penalty box, and he comfortably finished the chance, levelling the game at 1-1. After that, we had several chances – including one that Jordan Amavi really should have put away – but wasted them, and in the end a 1-1 draw seemed a very fair result. Considering how much better Leicester are than us following the winter update – I’d give my left arm for players like Mahrez, Kante (who was incredible) and Drinkwater – a 1-1 draw is a fantastic result.

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So, 4 points from the month of September and again we remain in 12th, a position I’m more than comfortable being in. There’s not a huge gap down to the bottom 3, but there’s not a huge gap up to the top half of the table either, and once Grealish is back – who I was correct in predicting we’d badly miss if he got injured – and a few further things are sorted, I’m confident that things will be fine. 4 points from this month is still good, and we’re not that far away from the 40 point marker than usually means safety in Premier League football. Again, I still feel that central defence is the weakest area of the squad. They have good games of course, but Lescott is the only one I feel I can rely on at the moment. For now, that’s the area I feel I need to look at first, hopefully in January if Mr. Lerner can loosen his purse strings.

I’ll update again at the end of October, hopefully with everything still going well for the claret and blue, and Grealish back fit and providing assists once again. Until then, thank you very much for reading, and as always with my saves and updates, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section, or on Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you very much for reading.

Kicking Off

R24Shirt1So, the 2015/16 season has officially started at Villa Park, and let’s hope the claret and blue can actually inspire some excitement or intrigue in their fans in this virtual version of last season. I’ve finished the month of August, so it’s now time to update you on how the month has gone, and how we’ve started the Premier League season. Villa started the real 15/16 season with one win in ten games. Hopefully we can better that.

It won’t be easy going though, as our first four fixtures of the league season are hardly ‘gimme’s’ to get us going. Manchester City away, Arsenal home, Chelsea away, and Liverpool away at Anfield. Honestly, I’d have been happy with any points at all from those fixtures. However, I knew that we really needed to try and get some points on the board early. The last thing we want is to be left behind in the relegation zone within the first few games. It was also time to test the counter attacking 4-4-2 against the kind of teams it was designed to work against, so I was a little unsure how we’d fare in the first month of the season. I also had FC Twente ‘interested’ in Agbonlahor and his £55k a week contract, but I wasn’t hopeful of much.

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So, we opened up against Man City away at the Etihad and recorded our first points of the season, holding City to a 0-0 draw. However, this result isn’t as positive as it initially looked, with Kompany getting himself sent off within the first ten minutes for scything down Jordan Ayew with a two footed challenge. City were also without Aguero and playing Bony upfront. Unfortunately we failed to take advantage of this and couldn’t get any breakthrough, and in reality, didn’t show much sign of achieving it anyway. So a point, but a fairly poor performance. Still, if you’d offered me a point at the Etihad before the game, I’d have bitten your hand off.

We then came back down to earth with a 2-0 battering against Arsenal at Villa Park, and in reality Arsenal could have scored 4 or 5. Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right flank and Gnabry from AMC absolutely tore us to shreds, and it was terrifying how easily they were able to bypass our midfield constantly outnumbering us 3 vs. 2 in the centre of the park. No matter how good you are, that’s tough, and my central midfielders aren’t that good anyway. I was also seeing very little from our strikers Ayew and Falcinelli as a result of the sheer amount of rearguard action we were forced into. In general, things just didn’t seem to be clicking as I’d hoped. At this point, the only bright spot was Grealish out on the left flank.

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 11.48.31With the midfield in mind, I made a switch for the next match against Chelsea (perhaps something I should have considered tactically anyway), moving to a midfield trio in the centre of the park and playing a 4-1-4-1 with an Anchorman in defensive midfield, and really reigning in the attacking roles in the squad.

This meant a move to one striker, which hopefully would allow Ayew (who is now the first choice) to flourish, with Falcinelli working well as his backup, and a potential substitute should Ayew be having an off game. The team’s still terrible, but this should at least serve us better in games where we are clearly outmatched – which is most games.

Those of you that have been following this blog for a while will recognise that it is very similar to the 4-1-4-1 I used in the early parts of the TSV Munchen save earlier on FM16 – a tactic I probably shouldn’t have moved away from.

Anyway, this is what I went into the Chelsea game with, and although we lost 1-0, the performance was a lot better, and we really restricted Chelsea, who scored through a Pedro tap in from a Hazard solo run. When the opposition is that much better than you individually, sometimes there’s only so much you can do. Ciaran Clark is not going to stop Eden Hazard. We then continued with the 4-1-4-1 in the League Cup against Sheffield United, and comfortably beat them 2-0 with both goals scored by Jordan Ayew, whose performances were clearly starting to improve playing up top on his own as a CF-S. What I will say however, is that if we go out of the League Cup quite early, I won’t be overly disappointed.

Next up was Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at Anfield and Coutinho, Firmino, Benteke, Clyne et al. I kept faith with the 4-1-4-1 system after its good performances against Chelsea and Sheffield and it absolutely paid off, as we defeated Liverpool 3-2, and only our shocking defending led to those 2 goals from Liverpool. Jordan Ayew was absolutely outstanding upfront – clearly finding his form, scoring one lovely team goal and assisting another – as was Carles Gil out on the right flank, scoring two lovely goals, one from the edge of the box that went straight into the corner. We had 14 shots on target to Liverpool’s 4, and in reality we should have won by a much more comfortable margin. Again, it was our defenders that really let us down, something I’m going to have consider moving forward.

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Ayew finishes off a wonderful move to put us 3-1 ahead at Anfield.

The transfer deadline came and went without FC Twente making any offer at all for Agbonlahor, and although I’d rather be shot of him, I really do want to keep things stable and consistent for the time being before I start to bring in the slow progression in the playing staff that I’m looking for. I’m already on the lookout for improvements in areas where I feel we’re weak – which at the moment appears to be centre defence and central midfield. Jordan Veretout, my best central midfielder has gone down with a twisted knee and will be out for 3 weeks, and I don’t have anyone that’s as good as him to replace him. Ashley Westwood looks like he’ll have to step up to fill the Frenchman’s boots. Gary Gardner is another possibility, but he’s currently on loan at Nottingham Forest.

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So, until the end of next month, that’s all I can update you on. We end August 12th in the Premier League, jumping up from 20th going into the Liverpool game. Still, 4 points from our first 4 league games – when you consider who those games were against – is a very solid return, and hopefully we can build on this, and continue to pick up points and make sure that relegation isn’t a possibility this season. Next month, we face Newcastle, Palace, Spurs and Leicester. Well, that’s easier.. in theory. Thank you for reading again, and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section, or you can contact me via Twitter (@JLAspey).