We’d concluded the previous season with an FA Cup success story and falling short in the Premier League title race. For the 30/31 season I had a couple of ideas in mind – new tactics, and at least one new face.
I also had to consider that Diez was going to leave. Liverpool triggered his £112 million release clause and Diez was keen to move. The Reds had yet again won the Champions League (almost certainly saving Klopp’s job in the process) and thus continued to be regarded as a huge club – rightly so – but Leeds were far more consistent in the Premier League and I felt we could go further in Europe. Alas, the reputation of Liverpool was enough to turn Diez’ head.
Whilst Liverpool were bidding for Diez, I was bidding for one of their key stars – Ryan Gravenberch. The central midfielder oozed quality and was relatively cheap – well, ok, £52 million isn’t exactly cheap, but you get the idea.
Gravenberch rejected Leeds, and also Arsenal, to go play for PSG. Grrr. Diez left, grr.
I did however sign Danny Hoekstra. The Dutchman could play as a right-back or on the right-wing, having a number of attributes that could work for either role (such as being a good crosser of the ball, excellent at running with the ball, and possessing a great first touch). He set me back £80 million but I believed he’d be worth it. Alongside Hoekstra I added depth to the middle of the park with Ralf Kurz. £83 million was the cost, but I ended up with a strong, athletic, astute passer of the ball. Nothing wrong with a bit of German efficiency right?
To kick off the friendlies Leeds went on a training camp to Hong Kong, with two games set up, the first of which being against Honey Badgers. Yes, seriously, there is a team called Honey Badgers. That’s why I chose them for one of the friendlies.
They were roundly beaten in a match where I used both of the new tactics I’d found. One encouraged a very attacking mentality, the other merely a positive approach, and both delivered goals in a 13-0 rout, but the opponents were hardly scrutinising us. I didn’t expect any kind of significant test against South China Athletic Association either.
Time for a ‘what’ moment. Scotland were through to the 2030 World Cup Final. They’d beaten Germany 2-1 in the Semi Final. It was a case of Erwin meeting Kurz for the first time, and getting the better of his opposite number, though in fairness both players played well. Surely Scotland couldn’t… then again, on previous Football Manager games they’d won the World Cup, so why not? Because of the magnitude of the occasion I decided to attend the World Cup Final, where Scotland would face… Norway.
For our second friendly we were 10-0 up at half time. Kenny Martin, playing as a central midfielder, had two goals within the first ten minutes and by 12 minutes had a hat-trick. Rhian Brewster scored a few goals too – he’d returned from loan, and I wasn’t sure what to do with him.
So, World Cup Final, Scotland versus Norway. Haaland, one of the most accomplished strikers in the world, would surely shine, wouldn’t he? He did score – but Scotland were by far the better team, and their efforts were duly rewarded. They led 2-0 at half time and a late third goal tied up the result and the World Cup. All I can say is wow.
Anyway, back to Leeds. Back to the meat and potatoes, so to speak. SLB of Portugal were the next opponents, away from home. They would be more challenging than my Hong Kong opposition.
If they were more challenging it wasn’t immediately obvious. A 7-0 away win with a Muchanga hat-trick was either due to a gulf in quality or the new tactics were working extremely well. Next we’d host Inter Milan, what lessons could be learned here?
A 2-1 victory was a little more conventional result for us, but a win was a win, against reasonable opposition too. The final friendly would pit us against Borussia Monchengladbach, once again at home. For this I returned to the style that had delivered trophies, wanting to keep the formation and tactic fresh in the minds of my players.
They certainly seemed to be quite familiar with it. A 9-3 win was the result of the switch, with everyone playing well and looking pretty well prepared for the upcoming season.
Something happened that opened up a quandary. In an earlier post I’d mentioned that I wouldn’t leave Leeds for any club, save possibly one. That wasn’t entirely true – well, it was and it wasn’t. There was only one club that could tempt me, but there was another team. I wasn’t going to pounce for the role, but if it was offered… it would be hard to resist.
Graeme Erwin, World Cup winner with Scotland and a key central midfielder for Leeds, came out as gay. This is a feature that’s quite new to Football Manager and I welcome it. There is still a stigma about homosexuality in football and Football Manager is rightfully challenging it. A player’s sexual orientation should have zero bearing on their ability.
A furious display of attacking football saw Leeds triumph 4-3 in another typically intense game against Manchester United in the Community Shield, then it was time for the Premier League season to begin.
Leeds hosted Everton, and Harwood-Bellis got the opening goal, Williams doubled our lead and Ramon converted a penalty in a steady 3-1 win. Our second match of the season pitted us against Manchester City, away from home. A blistering opening phase saw Leeds score three goals in the first 13 minutes, with the left flank being particularly important. Erwin, Williams and Kaydas were responsible for our comfortable cushion at half time, and though City would pull one back after the break, Kurz scored late on to seal a 4-1 victory.
So far I hadn’t deployed either of the new tactics, but for the visit of Aston Villa I was tempted to give one of them a go. The tactical shift brought about a small rotation of the squad; I’d actually named the same side for Everton and Man City. Erwin, playing as a shadow striker, scored a hat-trick that, rather poetically, saw him score within the first 20 seconds and then score towards the end of injury time at the end of the game.
Ahead of our next game, the Champions League Group Stages were drawn, and Leeds would end up facing RP Leipzig – who we’d knocked out of the competition last season – Austrian side Wolfsberger AC, and Spanish giants Real Madrid. This could be tough.
A fine performance from Williams and a solid showing from Kurz were among the highlights of a good overall game away to Wolves, where we denied the home side a single shot on target, and won 3-0. Muchanga got Player of the Match for his effort and chances created, and I dare say he was becoming a consistently good player. The international break gave us a pause between us and the visit of Spurs. Could we maintain our good early season form?
It wasn’t a great game but we won 1-0 thanks to Ramon nicking the ball from Spurs at a throw-in and running with it, deftly slopping the ball beyond the ‘keeper’s left and pinging it off the post. Now for the BIG ONE. The first Champions League fixture of the 30/31 season would pit us against Real Madrid. Elland Road was about to welcome footballing royalty.
In real life Real Madrid hold the record for Champions League titles. Back when the competition was the European Cup Real won the first five of them in a row, and have enjoyed some fairly recent success too (including becoming the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles). The club glitters with stars past and present – Alfredo Di Stefano scored 216 goals in 282 appearances for the club between 1953 and 1964, helping them lift many trophies, and won European Footballer of the Year on two occasions. Ferenc Puskas scored 156 goals in 180 appearances between 1958 and 1966 and there is an award named after him (for the most beautiful goal scored each year). More recently the likes Raul, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo, David Beckham and many more have lit up the stage. The infamous Cristiano Ronaldo developed into one of the two best players in the world at Real Madrid, and ‘keeper Iker Casillas is widely regarded as one of the best ‘keepers the game has ever seen.
Now, my Leeds lads wouldn’t be facing off against any of them (thankfully!), but Real Madrid command respect. We played well, in fact we were the better side, but couldn’t find a breakthrough and the game ended goalless.
From the glamour of facing Real Madrid to the… regular action of playing Brighton on the south coast. I didn’t feel we played as well as we could but despite going behind we recovered to win 2-1, thanks to Ramon.
Carabao Cup time now, and Leeds entertained Manchester United. As ever I sought to field fringe players and youth players, aiming to grant them invaluable match experience and preserve the fitness of my key stars at the same time. Given that many of my youngsters were out on loan I was a little more restricted in how I changed my starting line-up, but I was able to make quite a few important changes. We ended up losing quite heavily (3-1), but I wasn’t concerned about the Carabao Cup. The Premier League was far more important and we had a game a few days later to think about – we were hosting newly-promoted Sheffield United.
The game would mark my 200th game in charge of Leeds United, so I wanted to note the occasion with a good result. A 3-1 win where we never truly had to stretch ourselves was quite pleasing. Manager of the Month came my way for September as well.
Our second Champions League fixture was up next, away to RP Leipzig. We’d won there last season, could we do so again? Yes, yes we could – a 2-1 win felt quite routine, with goals from Kaydas and Williams delivering an important win in Germany.
Next up was a trip to Norwich City in the Premier League. The newcomers were having a somewhat difficult opening spell to the season, could we pile on the pressure? Yes. Kenny Martin scored early on, Ramon was given all the time and space to run on goal for the second, Brenes scored a short-range header from a corner late on, and Williams capped the win after slotting home Ramon’s cross at the very end in a 4-1 win. Almada pulled the strings in midfield, creating opportunities and working hard, as he always does.
We’d now won all eight of our Premier League fixtures and were the only Premier League team to have a 100% record. How long could we maintain this form? Well, we won our ninth game too, 2-1 at home to Fulham, though we should have won more convincingly.
Wolfsberger were no match for us. Leeds went to Austria and won 3-0, reaffirming our good form and keeping us in a good place, ahead of our trip to Anfield to face Liverpool. Here is where the bubble burst – we took an early lead but were beaten 4-1. There was still work to be done.
In the aftermath of the defeat our stadium expansion was completed, in time for the arrival of Manchester United. A better performance was needed if we were to get something out of this one. We ended up drawing 2-2. I felt we could have done better but in the end a draw was probably fair.
We were back in Champions League action next, hosting Wolfsberger, who we’d beaten quite comfortably only a short time earlier. This time the win was even more emphatic, an 8-0 triumph with Brenes (normally a right-back and on this occasion a central defender) scoring twice, as did Williams, as did Ramon, as did Kaydas. We hadn’t quite qualified for the knockout rounds, but we had a huge goal difference advantage over RP Leipzig.
Then disaster struck. Livakovic was out injured for a few weeks, Azeez was out on loan, and Arozena got hurt (yet again). I couldn’t recall Azeez so my options were extremely limited. Enter 16 year-old Halicharan Malsawmzuala. It wasn’t ideal to stick a 16 year-old in goal and even less ideal when it’s a Premier League fixture away from home, but what choice did I have?
Fortunately our opponents, Birmingham, weren’t too dangerous, despite scoring twice – we won 4-2 and always looked more likely to emerge as victors, thanks to the firepower of the team. The international break would give my ‘keepers a chance to heal a bit, and I kept my fingers crossed that they’d be fit for the next set of fixtures.
Arozena did indeed end up fit again in time for our next game, at home to West Brom in the Premier League. I imagine I could have stuck him up front and Ramon in goal and it wouldn’t have affected the outcome. A scintillating performance delivered a 7-0 win, including goals for Ramon, Erwin, Kaydas Almada and Martin.
My next match would be my 500th in management. It would at the Santiago Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid, so it was fitting location for such a occasion. Muchanga and Ramon gave Leeds are deserved 2-1 win and allowed me to relish my 500th game. We secured our slot in the knockout stages and did so with a game to spare.
Now for a trip to Arsenal. I’d never enjoyed a great deal of joy against Arsenal, and I wasn’t sure about this particular occasion. We lost 2-0 and didn’t play very well at all.
We were better away to Burnley, winning 2-0 and playing better football. We then hosted RP Leipzig in our final Champions League group game and won 3-0, with Williams getting a brace. Newcastle were up next, away from home in a league fixture. A disappointing 2-2 draw followed. We were poor in the first half against Leicester at home, but in the second half goals from Kaydas, Kurz and a wonderful solo effort from Martin (who ran from virtually the halfway line into the box with the ball to score) secured an important win.
For Boxing Day Leeds would host Southampton. Christmas is a time of giving and receiving. Would Southampton gift Leeds three points (we’d be grateful for them!)? They did, in a 2-0 win, with central defenders Harwood-Bellis and Brenes scoring the goals – we created a ridiculous number of chances but the defenders were the scorers…
We had a break of just a day before our next fixture, away to Chelsea. We were awful in this one, though if Williams and Ramon had been a bit sharper we might have had the lead. Instead we lost 3-0 and I had a bit of soul-searching to do – I felt the team was lacking its usual killer edge.
We’d arrived at the halfway mark of the season and we were six points behind league leaders Manchester United. In the wake of recent performances, I had to assume this wouldn’t be our season.