Welcome back, devout Football Manager fanatics, to my series about one of my most memorable FM careers to date, a glorious, trophy-laden five-and-a-half year stint at Manchester United in Football Manager 2014. This is the third article of the series, and, rather fittingly, I shall use this to cover the third season of my career, the 2015-16 campaign. It’s been a while since I wrote the first two articles, since I had to re-install Windows on my laptop after a few days of virus-inflicted internet connectivity issues, and so if your memory needs to be jogged, you can find the first two articles here (Part One) and here (Part Two). Do give them a quick read, since the first article gives a detailed description of my tactical approach, one that I utilized all the way through to the end of the 2015-16 season, and part two provides insights into the signings that saw us win the domestic treble — the Premier League, Capital One Cup, and the FA Cup — and secure the club’s fourth European Champions Cup, after a fantastic semi-final draw against Spanish giants Barcelona. Feel free to borrow any of my ideas for tactics and transfers, and I hope they perform as well for you as they did for my United team.
You may be wondering — and most of you may have been in such a quandary yourselves — how on earth one can follow up a practically perfect season like the one I enjoyed in the 2014-15 campaign. I had to think long and hard about how we could possibly ensure the long-term development of the team, and this article shall take you through the transfers and each of the competitions to see how we fared!
Firstly, let’s take a look at the transfers. To remind you, my squad from last season looked like this —
De Gea; Peruzzi (Alderweireld), Vidic (Jones), Smalling (Stones, Balanta), Shaw (Husband); Fellaini (Nainggolan), Dembele (Gonalons); Zaha (Valencia), Rooney (Ward-Prowse), Schurrle (Januzaj); Costa (van Persie, Wilson)
and it seemed almost perfect in terms of balance. With Ryan Ledson, John Manship, and academy product Shaun Whyte (a central attacking midfielder with excellent Technical attributes) waiting in the wings, I felt I had enough options to remove the need for any marquee signings like those of Diego Costa, Luke Shaw, and Andre Schurrle over the previous two summer windows. And this confidence in my team was reflected in our almost complete lack of activity in the transfer window.
Jose Antonio Sanchez from Real Madrid Castilla ($8.75 million)
The second Spanish striker to join us from Castilla in two seasons (following Juan Carlos’ arrival the previous summer), Sanchez came in for a larger-than-ideal fee, and went straight to the Under-21s. He was not signed for the first team straightaway, with Rooney, Schurrle, Costa, van Persie, Barbosa, and James Wilson to choose from, but with van Persie approaching his sell-by date due to my policy of not allowing players to remain at the club beyond 30 or 31 years of age, I felt I needed some options for the long term, and Sanchez’s presence added to that of Juan Carlos, Wilson, and Angelo Henriquez (who has been doing well on loan over the last two seasons, but not at the level that merits inclusion ahead of the strikers already on the roster). With the right supervision of training and development, Sanchez seemed like one to watch out for.
As I said, it was a quiet summer, with Sanchez the only player joining us. Of those to leave, these were the significant ones.
Nemanja Vidic to AC Milan ($1.1 million)
A glorious servant to the club, but a victim of my aforementioned age policy, club captain Vidic was transfer listed, and Italian side AC Milan made an acceptable bid. Vidic departed after scoring 17 goals in 58 appearances since I joined, and his absence created the opportunity for the likes of Balanta, Alderweireld, Stones, Jones, and Smalling to get more game-time between them.
Radja Nainggolan to Atletico Madrid ($15.5 million)
After 72 appearances for the club in hist two full seasons since joining us in 2013 from Cagliari, midfield enforcer Nainggolan left for greener pastures and more game time. His time at the club had yielded 2 goals and a series of consistent performances at an average rating of 7.01, but his departure was more a reflection of my growing habit of playing Rooney in one of the two central midfield positions in my 4-2-3-1 formation due to his deteriorating Physical attributes and sharpness in front of goal. Also, Nainggolan’s departure would allow Ryan Ledson to get a few minutes in the games with less riding on them. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for long-term progress.
And now for the biggest transfer of the season, and of the save so far.
Wilfried Zaha to Paris Saint-Germain ($51 million)
I had originally not planned to sell Zaha, but his stunning performances in the 2014-15 season (12 goals and 13 assists in 39 appearances, with a 7.20 average rating), and especially along our path to European glory (6 goals and 6 assists in 10 appearances, with a 7.76 average rating), had attracted the attention of serial spenders PSG. They initially made a series of bids in the mid-$30 million range, with only a $5-6 million premium on his market value, and these bids were rejected during the summer window. 8 goals in 30 appearances between August and December convinced PSG to return with a vastly-improved bid of $51 million, and I couldn’t resist accepting it.
And so, to sum up the transfer activity, the first team saw no new additions, with three players leaving, resulting in a net transfer income of $59 million. Now for the actual season, and a look at how we handled our defense of every major trophy we won the previous season.
A rather ordinary pre-season campaign was followed by victory against Chelsea in the Community Shield match, our first against the Blues outside Old Trafford. However, we could not replicate this success in the European Super Cup, suffering a shock defeat at the hands of EURO Cup winners AZ Alkmaar. Our defense of the Premier League title got off to a solid start, with our first defeat coming in late October at the hands of newly-promoted Brighton (who, if memory serves me correctly) caused many upsets in the league, taking points off Chelsea, City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton, and Man City at home. We regained form in November, and headed off to the Club World Championship in Japan in a confident mood. Our utter supremacy over the other teams was reflected in a stunning 7-0 dismantling of Egyptian side Zamalek SC, with Phil Jones scoring a hat-trick. However, our hopes of winning the title were dashed after a late Jones own goal saw us concede defeat to Palmeiras. I vented my frustration in a heated conversation with Jones, which drastically affected our relationship over the next few months. If I remember correctly, he even handed in a transfer request, although I gave him sufficient game time to improve his morale.
The Club World Championship hangover lasted a lot longer than I had expected, with the team being eliminated from the Capital One Cup by Manchester City, before suffering high-scoring league defeats against Nottingham (away) and, embarrassingly, Liverpool (home) in January. Another league defeat — this time against Everton — was followed by 3 draws and 8 wins in all competitions, which gave us confidence heading into the two-legged European Champions Cup quarter-final clash against Real Madrid. Oh, were we in for a shock or what. Despite fielding a full-strength side, we were absolutely destroyed at the Santiago Bernabeu, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a brace and Romelu Lukaku netting a hat-trick in a 6-1 demolition. Clearly all hopes of progress were dashed, and we lost 0-1 at home in the second leg to bring our defense of our European title to an abrupt crashing halt. To rub salt in the wounds, Liverpool inflicted another defeat on us, this time in the semi-final of the FA Cup, thus ending another title defense.
On a positive note, consecutive league wins over Arsenal (5-2 at home) and Man City (1-0 away) meant we secured our third consecutive league title with four games to spare. Even one win from the 4 remaining fixtures saw us win end the season with an eight-point cushion over second-placed Man City.
Now, since I had to re-install Windows last week, I lost the save, and therefore won’t be able to provide you the detailed player performance analysis I did last time round. However, I can tell you that our Best XI for the season looked like this:
Andre Schurrle ended the season as the club’s top scorer, with 26 goals in 57 appearances, only slightly less than his haul of 28 goals in 54 games the previous season, which had also earned him the top goal-scorer award. New club captain Wayne Rooney won the Fans’ Player of the Year award for the second season in a row.
The attacking quartet of Rooney, van Persie, Costa, and Schurrle were absolutely devastating for us, and their positional flexibility and adaptability meant we didn’t suffer too much as a result of the Zaha sale. Rooney can play in 5 positions in this tactical set-up (CM, LAM, RAM, CAM, and ST), van Persie 3 (ST, LAM, CAM; I used him at LAM on quite a few occasions late in games, when Barbosa or Wilson would come on for the last 20 or 30 minutes; his crossing from out wide gave us another attacking outlet), Schurrle 4 (LAM, where he played for most of the season, as an Inside Forward; a pacey winger with excellent Physical attributes, he was devastating from out wide; CAM, RAM, ST), and Costa 3 (RAM, CAM, where he played for most of the season, giving us a physical presence up front, and allowing us to make the most of his excellent creativity, and ST). Having Januzaj, Wilson, and Barbosa to choose from, with Ward-Prowse and Fellaini also capable of playing in the CAM position, meant we could implement our rotation policy throughout the season, thus maintaining freshness for the crunch ties (for example, between 22nd March and 19th April 2016, we played 8 games against opposition such as Real Madrid (x2), Man City (x2), Arsenal, Liverpool, and Southampton. In this sense, my focus on lowering players’ wages is highly pertinent, since it allows for us to have a slightly larger squad, perfect for my rotation policy.
One more thing I’d like to add before ending the article: on the 11th of May, I had two facility expansion requests approved by the board — the first was for our Training Facilities, owing to my determination to bring in a couple of home-grown talents into the team over the next two seasons, and the second was for a Stadium Expansion; with a 75,000+ seating capacity, Old Trafford was already by far the biggest stadium in the Premier League, but I felt we could push match-day revenues up a notch by expanding the stadium, and gladly the board agreed. We’d see the new 90,000+ capacity stadium operational in August 2018. This was a rather important aspect of my long-term vision for the club, with financial stability as integral to my philosophy of how to run a club as success on the pitch.
To summarize what was a reasonably satisfying season, we won two trophies to continue our excellent domestic record, but failed in Europe for the second time in three seasons. Perhaps my overly frugal inactivity in the transfer market had backfired, with the squad needing a few fresh faces to keep performances at a consistently high level. With this in mind, I was determined to spend whatever it takes to make the necessary improvements to my squad; perhaps a tactical overhaul would be required to improve our competitiveness in Europe.
With that in mind, I bid you farewell for now, and thank you for reading! I’ll try and post the next article in a few days, with all the updates on incoming transfers (watch out, there may be a few big ones) and their impact on our performances in the league and cup competitions!
Thanks for reading, and you’ll hear from me soon!