Football Manager — Glory to Sporting (Part 4)

Warning: This is one of those nerdy, overly serious Football Manager stories. Something, depending on your sensibilities, you’ll either love, or hate. Parts One, Two and Three here.

I wake. Birdsong mixes with the sound of children being trudged towards the local school. I stare at the ceiling and think of defence. I eat dinner, I think of defence. I watch The great British bake off, I think of defence. Defence, defence, defence.

The freescoring form Sporting enjoyed in the last third of the past season has me convinced of the new 4–3–3 tactic and I’m confident going into the domestic season. But the aim of this save is winning the Champions League in five seasons and my defence is nowhere near good enough against Europe’s elite attackers. This is the penultimate season — its put up or shut-up time. Something has to click.

Season 4 (2017/18)

I spent the majority of the season with a central defensive partnership of Winston Reid, signed on a free from West Ham at the begining of the 2015 season, and Tobias Figueiredo, a promotion from the youth ranks, who despite more than enough exposure to first team football, hasn’t developed as hoped and is going to be, at best, squad cover.

My scouts are still working feverishly to find me that player — a defensive totem that is young enough to fit into my methodology of signing youth, but is also good enough to transform my defence instantly. A rare beast.

My scouts do their work diligently and find me not one, but two suitable players. The first one is Joost van Aken — a towering (6.5ft) Dutchman currently at PSV with impressively high stats in positioning, concentration and marking — three areas where the current defence fails.

The second is a Brazilian, Flávio, valued by his current club Coritiba at just shy of £3 million. Flávio is an inch shorter than van Aken but is very much the ying to the Dutchman’s yang — the former is a far more physical defender, with good stats in heading, strength and tackling. My mind ticks over, would two new central defenders be too much, or would it be the silver bullet my team needs?

My hand is forced by a transfer offer. Monaco like Winston Reid, they like him 5 million times, despite the New Zealander only being valued at a little over £3m. I negoatiate and manage to squeeze a deal worth £6.5 million out of the moneyed French. Considering he was signed on a free this represents a deal simply too good to turn down. I accept, thank Winston for his service and immediately slide the windfall into deals snapping up van Aken and Flávio for a combined total of £10 million.

It must be said at this time that, whilst I have a transfer in policy of signing young, ideally Portugese-speaking talent, I don’t have an overarching selling policy. The sale of Winston Reid represents smart business and, given that the Primeira Liga offers little in the way of commercial riches, I can’t afford to turn down cash money when its offered when I also have the safety net of a equal or better player available through signing or youth development — see also the sale of Silva to Chelsea.

That said, it doesn’t mean I’m going to sell all my players — William Carvalho has been ubjected to numerous bids from ‘bigger fish’ such as Juventus, Arsenal and PSG; similarly too, João Mário and Douglas Coutinho. Each of these players could be sold for over £20 million; but in many ways they represent my spine and are irreplacable. And, through the profits made on through transfer dealings such as Reid mean I am running a profit of just under £10 million, so thankfully I don’t have to sell.

The bids are ritually ignored, but they do open up another concern. If I do make serious in-roads into Europe then the bids are only going to increase, and theres only so many times that you’re going to convince your star players that the Portugese Premier League is the place to be. Thats another reason why a healthy bank balance is a must, sooner or later contract demands are going to increase.

Islam Slimani, whilst offering a more physical presence up front, saw little football in the latter stages of last season and Sean Dyche’s Aston Villa are interested. A quick back and forth results in a deal worth £5 million and the Algerian is off to Birmingham. With some of those funds I snap up 18-year-old Miguel Lourenço as my first Portuguese signing and also agree a deal to bring James Ward-Prowse over from Arsenal on a season long loan, hopefully he’ll come in useful when legs start to tire over the new year.

Malcom had been a stand-out success since I had moved to a 4–3–3 and AC Milan, under new ownership and currently awash with cash, had taken notice. They make an enquiry and, just for shits and giggles, I respond with a price of £30 million for the £15 million forward. Amazingly Milan accept and, despite Malcom being in my plans, he is replaceable and double the value is just too good to turn down.

With Slimani and Malcom gone that leaves me with Coutinho, Rocha, Sergio Díaz, Ryan Gauld and Matheus Pereira as my forward options; perhaps not as strong as last season individually, but I think theres a better balance in the team.

I deliberately arrange a long, ardous pre-season coupled with intense team cohesion training— I want my new defensive pairing to glue together as quickly as possible.

Early season form seems to suggest it has worked, as SPorting win their first eight, including trouncing Viktoria Plzen 11–1 on aggregate in the Champions League qualifying rounds and heading the Primeira Liga by three points.

In my first real test I earn a credible 1–1 draw away to Bayern Munich and beat Marseille at home. Its only in late October where I suffer my first league defeat, losing 2–1 away to league rivals Porto, but, with only four points dropped up to that point, we retain a decent position at the top of the table.

In Europe I lose both legs to an impressive Roma, but actually beat an already qualified Bayern 4–2 at home to secure passage to the knock-out stages.

In fact between the start of November and New Years Eve Sporting win every game bar one — scoring 44 goals and conceding only 11.

The January transfer window is, as per tradition, ignored by myself. Unfortunately no one else has read the script. My old mate Jose Mourinho makes his interest in André Martins known to the public, unsettling the player, hardly the act of a friend. No bid actually materialises, which is perhaps the most frustrating aspect, not that I had any intention to sell.

Another player unsettled is Brazilian Pedro Rocha, who has been in superb form in the first half of the season. That said, despite his unexplained unhappiness I’m shocked that he goes balistic when I reject a £10 million bid from Flamengo (Maybe he was homesick). With the striker threatening to go to the press I decide to head back to the table and negotiate up to a£12.5m deal. Thats £12.5 million for a player signed three seasons ago for £25,000 — a mark up of 49900%.

With Pedro departing just six months after Malcom I need a new forward. Luckily the latter’s departure initiated a new search for my scouts and they came up trumps reasonably early with, shock horror, a young Brazilian forward by the name Gabriel Jesus, from Palmeiras. After two months scouting from the a number of coaches and scouts all the reports point to an ability greater than that of star striker Coutinho. Moreover, at a mere £5.5 million he’s a snip. In he comes. All in all I make a profit of just over £30 million between the season’s two transfer windows, contributing to record profits for the club and allowing me to tie down some of my key players to contract extensions.

The new year brings more of the same in terms of performance — Sporting win all the way through to late February, where a weakened side are unlucky to lose away to second placed Porto. The reason for the weakened team is the next fixture — away to Lyon in the first knockout round of the Champions League. The game doesn’t dissapoint — the Stade de Lumiéres are treated to a 3–3 thriller, where the visitors battle back from two down and back into the ‘driving seat’.

In the interim four games before the second leg I decide to play what are essentially my ‘second string’ players in many positions — Adrien, Ward-Prouse in midfield; Geraldes at right back, etc. Its heartening to see how well they perform, albeit against mediocre mid-table opposition, winning all four and only conceding twice — I always knew I had the potential for a good team, but a good squad will always be needed to win the Champions League.

In the second leg at home to Lyon Sporting cruise past the French league champions who are reduced to nine men before the final whistle. Everything is looking rosey. Too rosey.

Probably my major mistake so far has been based on the assumption that my goalkeeper and captain Rui Patricio — one of the most spectacularly solid ‘keepers I have encountered — would only need minimal resting throughout the season.

To this end, in my second season I had sold the 29-year-old back up goalkeeper Marcelo Boeck in oder to free up one of the limited over-19 squad places. In his place I had signed a 17-year-old by the name of Wallace, but, since then, due to the lack of other options I hadn’t loaned him out as intended. With the morbid inevitability Football Manager throws at you, Rui Patricio gets injured during a routine home win against Madeira, leaving me number-one-less for the next game, the Champions League quarter final first leg against Roma, the team who bested me twice in the group stages.

Sporting don’t play that bad but still fall to the heaviest defeat of the season, losing 5–3 at the Stadio Olympico. I hope that those three away goals will be enough.

The second leg starts well and two goals bring the tie level on aggregate and Sporting ahead on away goals. But, just five minutes into the second half, Joost van Aken gets a straight red card for bringing down Pedro Obiang in the box. The penalty is converted and the whole nature of the tie is changed. I decide that not conceding is moot — Sporting need goals and respond by taking off a defender to bring on a substitute forward. The strategy very nearly pays off on numerous occasions, but also leaves me all too open at the back. I don’t concede, but ultimately, Sporting don’t score. And, rather disappointingly, another season passes with no Champions League glory.

With the Champions League put on ice for another season I unleash the wrath of my team on domestic foes. At the end of April a mix of second string players and youth prospects, including a £10 million rated 19-year-old Antonio Silva, beat Maritimo in the Portuguese League Cup final, my first piece of silverwear.

Primeira Liga top three players of the season

Two games later the Primeira Liga title is ours with a 3–0 win over Estoril, a full six games before the season ends. Sporting finish the victorious season unbeaten, leading to a sum total of 28 wins, four draws, just two losses and a goal difference of 82.

In the last game of the domestic season at Estádio Nacional in Lisbon Sporting complete a historic domestic treble, beating Académica in the Taça de Portugal final. A full house. Nearly.

Elsewhere

Juventus celebrate their own form of domestic domination, celebrating a seventh Serie A title in a row. Arsenal celebrate the title, thanks to 25 goals from German Kevin Volland. El Classico comes to Wales as Real Madrid take on Barcelona at the Millennium Stadium in the Champions League final, with Carlo Ancelotti winning his second continental title in four years.

The 2018 World Cup group stages see no real surprises and its as you were for England as they crash out to Belgium on penalties in the quarter finals. In the final in Moscow, France shock the favourites Germany, with a single goal being enough.

Conclusions

Although the overarching aim of this save is obvious, every individual season has its individual aims, all of which are crucial steps on the way. In many ways this season would be crucial — its all well and good building the foundations, buying smart, building tactics and developing talent; at the end of the day, the aim is to win things. With that monkey off the team’s back, and with only one season left its now or never.

Team of the Year

Can Sporting do the impossible? Stay tuned for the final part in this saga in the coming days.