Football Manager 21: P29 – The Leeds Project Season Five, P1 – or is it?

Last season had ended on the slightly sour note of losing in the Champions League Final. Ok ok, it was more than ‘slightly sour’. It hurt, as it naturally would. Leeds had been on the verge of glory, but the lottery of penalties hadn’t been kind. That was in the past. The 31/32 season was the focus. My mental commitment meant this would be my fifth full season with the Yorkshire club, and officially I had a contract until the end of the 32/33 season.

We were hit with the downgrading of our training facilities, and the board didn’t want to invest in getting them back to the top level. This was disappointing, and though in my head I had this commitment, there was another force at work. Liverpool had finally parted ways with Jurgen Klopp, following their failure to secure Champions League football, and they were the one club I’d leave Leeds for at that moment in time. I agonised over whether to apply, and in the end I decided to go for it. I didn’t openly declare an interest, so in theory I’d lose nothing.

There was no certainty that I’d even get an interview with Liverpool, so I had to plan as though I’d be remaining with Leeds United for at least one more season. To begin, I had to fend off interest in Mazinho from Newcastle and rejected a bid for Brenes from Arsenal. I wanted to make the squad stronger, not sell my best players, least of all to domestic rivals.

Whilst applying for the Liverpool role, I noticed two other clubs were seeking new managers. Bayern Munich and Barcelona were both putting out adverts. Did I go all in? No, it would be Leeds or Liverpool. Speaking of Liverpool, they offered me an interview. Did it go well? Time would tell…

Time did indeed tell. Liverpool approached me for the role of manager. They came in with an offer of £150k per week for my services. The club I supported, the club I could not have dreamed of managing when I started out with Aldershot, wanted me. How could I say no?

I agreed, and took a lower wage too, of ‘only’ £120k per week, to offer more money for other areas. I’d be sorry to say goodbye to Leeds, but I could not turn down this opportunity.

There’d be some work to be done. Veteran ‘keeper Alisson was not getting any younger and would only be at Anfield by virtue of me triggering an extension clause in his contract. I needed to have a good look at who to bring in to the club, though first I needed to take a good look at who I already had. My chief desire would be to give existing players a chance to prove themselves, but the demands of the club were for swift success, which would mean making signings.

Or would it? I didn’t want to be hasty. A new ‘keeper wouldn’t go amiss, but beyond that Liverpool had won many a Champions League title, so whatever their domestic failings, the quality was there. To put the team to the test, the first friendly would be against Monaco. This was won 2-1 but required me to ‘break the game’ by means of a holiday, as there weren’t enough players to field a full team, for whatever odd reason.

I addressed the ‘keeper situation with the signing of a young up-and-coming Argentinian to replace Brazilian Alisson. At 21 years of age Juan Bruno had already played twice for his country, and had bags of talent.

The first friendly game that I attended was against Singapore side Sembawang Rangers. Liverpool won 16-0, having 56 shots to their zero. It was hardly going to tell me much about the tactics or squad, but it was a good early display of power and aggression.

Theo Wass was my next signing. The Danish defender was only 20 and already seemed quite good, it was nice to have some strength in depth.

Gombak United were up next. They were easily dispatched 12-0. Following the two training camp friendlies, a stiffer test awaited against Juventus, away from home. We ran out 2-0 winners, which was quite pleasing, given the nature of the opposition. We followed this up with a 4-0 win at home to my old club Crystal Palace.

Our final friendly was a comfortable 5-0 win at Anfield over Club Brugge. With the pre-season stage of the campaign completed, it was time to ready ourselves for the real action. Liverpool had twelve days to plan for the visit of newly-promoted Millwall.

First impressions are vital in most walks of life. We don’t get second chances with them, and I wanted to mark the beginning of my first Premier League campaign with Liverpool with a bang. Oh boy did we do so. Polish shadow striker Patryk Szymanski got Liverpool off to a good start with a goal after just two minutes. Club captain Trent Alexander-Arnold doubled our advantage after 25 minutes and Bautista Diez, formerly one of my players at Leeds, made it three a short time later. Left-back Luke Forrester added a fourth on 35 minutes and Diez got his second on 41 minutes, then defender Dayot Upamecano made it six shortly after the break and substitute Juan Ripolies completed the rout towards the end of the game. To add to the scale of the win, Millwall didn’t even have a shot, let alone a shot on target.

It was but one game and a game against the team most likely to be the Premier League’s whipping boys for the 31/32 season. It would be utterly pointless to get ahead of ourselves, for much sterner challenges waited for us. My second game in charge of Liverpool would take us to Newcastle. My last encounter with Newcastle had been a 3-0 defeat at home with Leeds, so to me, this was something of a grudge match.

I named an unchanged line-up for the Newcastle game, something I’d rarely done, but everyone was fit and ready, so why not? The team responded by winning 4-1, with Szymanski scoring again and Diez getting another brace. Zmimer was the other scorer.

For the visit of Fulham I was facing having to make a change. Alexander-Arnold had picked up a minor injury against Newcastle and I was monitoring his condition. At some stage he’d developed from the right-back position that he’s currently known for into a right midfielder, and thus he has a new level of versatility to his game. If he could be fit for Fulham great, but I had to concede that he probably wouldn’t be.

I then lost central defender Diego Vallejo to injury as well. If nothing else, this would be a change for other players to shine. We took a straight-forward 2-0 win. Szymanski was on target yet again. I wouldn’t call the performance electrifying but it was good enough to overcome Fulham.

Our next game was also a home game, against Birmingham. This wasn’t even remotely a contest. Had I been Birmingham’s manager I’ve have been furious with how easily my defence parted for Liverpool. Zmimer scored four goals (as a central midfielder no less) and we ran out 8-1 winners – an all too familiar margin of defeat for Birmingham!

Manager of the Month was my reward for a very productive August, with Diez taking Player of the Month. The opening games had been very good for Liverpool, but after the international break came our first big test – a trip to Spurs. I lost Diez to injury whilst on international duty – which frustrated me greatly. There were players who could fill in for him, but I already knew from my Leeds days how good a player he was.

The war of words with Spurs boss Conceicao continued. He’d angrily decried my successes, insisting I was over-rated. I laughed it off, for it was childish behaviour on his part. However the game itself was poor – we lost 2-0 and Alexander-Arnold missed a penalty. FK Austria Vienna were next, in the Europa League group stages, and I freely admit to fielding a weakened team. Bruno made his debut in goal, I handed a debut to 17 year-old Jason Cartwright in defence, and we won 5-0 with Alexander-Arnold scoring four goals.

Premier League duty returned with the visitation of Wolves. A good and satisfying 3-0 win was followed with the arrival of Portsmouth in the Carabao Cup. Pompey were dispatched 3-0, in another convincing display.

We absolutely dominated Man City on their own turf, but could not score, and thus succumbed to a 1-0 defeat due to a last-minute goal. This is how football goes (in real life City dominated at home to Leeds, but lost 2-1), but it royally sucks.

17-1. I felt guilty about this. We crushed Antwerp in the Europa League. It was easily the best competitive result I’d had in any competition. The scale of it was just unreal.

Now for an emotional reunion. Liverpool would be hosting Leeds United. My former club were top of the league, and we were right behind them. We created plenty of chances and won 3-1, but strangely all Liverpool’s goals came from my defenders!

Santos was my key man against Leicester at home. He scored twice in a 3-0 win that saw us start slowly but grow stronger as the game wore on. A 10-1 win followed against Olympiakos in the Europa League. From there, a good 3-1 away win over Bournemouth in the Premier League kept up the momentum.

We took the lead against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup but ending up losing 5-1. I wasn’t concerned; I’d fielded a weakened team for a reason. The aim was to rest players for more important occasions, and I felt confident this would prove to be the right move as the season moved on. Brighton were next, away from home – with previous clubs they’d been a tough nut to crack, would Liverpool have the same experience? We went into the game on the back of winning Manager of the Month for October, which was always nice.

We lost 3-1 and played poorly, and the defeat left me trying to figure out how to adjust my tactics to gain greater consistency, something we sorely lacked.

Olmypiakos in the Europa League were up next, away from home. Could we start to build up some of that much-needed consistency? No. We lost 2-1, though I’d fielded a team comprised mostly of youth players. To ensure our place in the knockout stages, I’d probably have to name more first-choice players next time around.

Chelsea were up next. They were 6th yet only three points behind Liverpool, in a season that could so far be described as ‘tight’. We won 4-0 against Chelsea, and could have won by a lot more if not for a combination of poor finishing and a couple of good saves. Upamecano and Vallejo, two defenders, both got on the score sheet, as did Szymanski and Diez.

Another London club beckoned, one that I did not have a great record against – Arsenal. This time we were away, and my last trip to London had seen defeat at Spurs. The stars were definitely not aligned for this one… and in the midst of preparing for it I was suddenly fending off bids for my key players from Barcelona.

Much like the City game earlier, we dominated and lost. This was getting extremely annoying, for we were creating chances but just not putting them away! We’d lost four of our first 13 games, which was completely unacceptable. Had I traded a good thing at Leeds for a bad thing at Liverpool?

A 4-0 win over FK Austria Vienna in the Europa League meant we’d sorted out a spot in the knockout stages, so that was something. I had to stick with the tactics that in theory, were among the most successful on Football Manager, and give them time. Aston Villa were coming to Anfield – would I finally start to see some consistency?

Well, after a poor first half, we ended up 4-1 winners, but I wasn’t thrilled at how wasteful we were in front of goal. Some changes were needed, and some new strikers wouldn’t go amiss.

Next would be a challenging double-bill. Firstly, Liverpool would face fierce local rivals Everton away from home. Though they were some way off the pace, Everton would almost certainly up the ante for our visit.

I have to say that this was an impressive performance. A 3-0 derby win is always satisfying and when it’s on your rival’s patch, it’s even better. Martinez scored twice and the natural finisher was earning his place ahead of other names on the team sheet. Could he do it again for the visit of Manchester United?

Despite falling behind early on, Liverpool rallied. Martinez scored another pair of goals and Santos also scored in a 4-2 victory that had potentially huge ramifications for the season. It was a great result in a fast-paced encounter where I’d be fearful of a defeat, especially after conceding within the first five minutes.

For the trip to Antwerp (who’d previously been on the receiving end of my biggest ever win, 17-1) I rotated the squad, as was prudent. A 2-1 win was the reward, with the youngsters doing pretty well.

Up next was a trip to Norwich, who were doing incredibly well, sitting in fourth place in the Premier League. We had to come from behind but we won 2-1, with Santos scoring late on.

Off the pitch, I had taken a bit of an issue with the board. They were identifying players to sign, yet my attempt to sign of the players the board had looked at, Rodrigo Jose, failed because of a lack of funds and an unwillingness to do what was needed to get the player (a highly-rated young central defender). In fairness, I had a few defenders in the youth team who looked good, but still, why suggest a player you don’t have the desire to buy?

The board then blocked a bid for another central defender, a guy by the name of Matt Welch. In the wake of their intransigence, I had little choice but to fall back upon my youth setup, though I did put in a cheeky bid for Stergiou, of Leeds. Given what they wanted for him, I soon withdrew my offer.

After a brief international interlude Premier League duty resumed with the arrival of Portsmouth to Anfield. What would the Boxing Day round of games bring? Cheer or coal? The answer was… cheer! A 5-1 win in which Martinez continued to score and Santos continued to score was validating my decision to stick those two up front. Some good midfield performances (I’d inherited a skilful youngster by the name of Russell Hammant) helped us on our way.

We only had a break of one day before the next game, a trip to relegation-threatened Burnley. This was yet another example of being FMed. For the third time this season we had utterly dominated a game and lost. Santos and Martinez both misfired, much to my displeasure – Burnley scored from one of just two shots on target. We had 10 shots on target that stubbornly refused to go in.

I know this happens in real football. There are always games like these, but they seem far more common in Football Manager and it kind of breaks the game. Suspension of disbelief is an important element here, in a game controlled by statistics and numbers and code. Sometimes I can believe the makers of the game have hidden scripted sequences, designed to piss off players for no reason.

Such was my annoyance that I sent my assistant manager to do the press conference. I wasn’t in the mood for the theatrics. I wanted us to start winning several games in a row, instead of this bitty progress. We were halfway through the season, we were three points off the lead, yet we could have and should have been further along. We needed to do better – and we needed the game to be reasonable.

Back to Football Manager 21

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