3rd July 2001
Breaking news – “Angel” by Shaggy feat Rayvon is down to number 2 in the UK charts, replaced at the top by “Lady Marmalade”, which as far as I can tell was written by every single early 2000’s female artist. I know that it hurts. Shaggy is very important to all of us after all, but maybe we can take our mind off it with some football.
Our Chairman Philip Carter keeps raising the stakes, you know. He asked for top half, we gave him Europe. He asked for top 5, we came 3rd. Now he’s asking for top 4, which… Well I guess it’s not technically raising the stakes, but I appreciate him pushing us. He’s our muse in that regard. He also wants an FA Cup Semi, which should be fine and a place in the Second Phase Group Stage in the Champions League, which could be trickier. Overall though, I’m confident of winning something this year so even in the worst case scenario, some silverware should drag us through to a satisfactory end of year report.
Let’s get straight down to it then. We want more quality in this Summer, so let’s work out where. I’m extremely happy on the whole with how our first team’s shaping up, but there’s still room for improvement.
In goal, Petr Cech’s coming along very nicely with a full season of Premier League football under his belt. If I’m honest I’ve grappled with whether to sign Gianluigi Buffon this Summer, but I decided there were more far pressing issues within the team when Cech still has so much improving to do. Our transfer budget is currently £15M and Buffon would’ve cost £10M. I’m second guessing myself now that Liverpool have snapped him up, but oh well. I’m sure Petr will repay my faith. Also, who gives a goalkeeper the number 17 shirt? Liverpool boss José Mourinho, that’s who.
The right back position is still a bit of a coin flip between Juliano Beletti and Abel Xavier and I’ll probably continue to play whoever suits each match better. Would I like an upgrade here? Sure, but again, it’s not on the agenda for this transfer window. I’m perfectly content with these two.
A bit of a headache is starting to form in the centre of our defence, however. We now have 3 first team centre backs and while the combination of Richard Dunne and Captain David Unsworth is solid, I feel like we could use an injection of quality here to bring our defence to the next level. We scored a lot of goals last season but conceded a lot too. This is probably mainly the gung-ho tactics I’m persisting with, yes, but I’d love a standout centre back to plug some of our leaks.
Much like on the right, I’m perfectly happy with Michael Ball and Rodolfo Arruabarrena on the left of our defence. Rodolfo’s solid and Michael’s still got a lot of potential to fulfil. They’ll be rotating pretty heavily.
I’m curious to see how our new central midfield partnership develops – Gennaro Gattuso had a really solid season last year as the powerhouse in the centre of the park, but he’ll be joined this year by Hidetoshi Nakata, who brings with him bags and bags of technique and skill.
I’m never upgrading our right wing. Pablo Aimar is the dream – More creative, more skilful and faster than almost anyone we’ll face.
On the left, I’m still intrigued to see what happens when Riquelme gets fully settled. He’s nowhere near as quick as Aimar, but he’s also incredibly skilful and creative. His first half-season with us wasn’t glamourous, but it was solid and I’m hoping to see bigger and better things this campaign.
And up front of course we have Tomasz Radzinski and Franny Jeffers. If Radzinski goes in a big money deal I’ll have to rethink this, but at the minute I think I’d like an upgrade on Jeffers. Even as one of the first names on the teamsheet every week for 2 years, his progression has been disappointingly slow. He’s still not been picked for England and can only watch on with envy as Unsworth, Ball and Barmby join up with the 3 Lions. Personally though I blame Kevin Keegan for that. He scored 22 goals last season, Kev, what are you doing? Either way, he’ll still be heavily involved this season, even if it’s as a part of my second string.
That’s about it for now then. Man City have plunged straight back into the first division with Derby and Coventry, while Sunderland have bounced straight back up to the big time with Stoke and Bournemouth, 2 sides that are way ahead of schedule.
3rd September 2001
Alright, can’t complain about how this one’s started. 5 games in, 4 games won and we’re 3rd place in the League behind United and… Bradford? Wow.
I’m going to shake up the extremely new formula that these episodes seem to be following by showing you my transfers straight away, because fuck me did we add some quality.
First in was my defensive reinforcement – London lad Rio Gavin Ferdinand. £25M was very steep, I’ll admit, and I usually prefer to keep my club as debt-free as possible by only buying players with cash outright, but this Summer I’ve made a couple of exceptions as I feel that this quality injection is key to maintaining our momentum. My board even tried to step in and cancel the deal at one point, but even they eventually admitted that this lad is worth the investment.
And I did also succeed in bringing in an upgrade for Jeffers up front. “Who was it?” you ask. “Another former Evertonian? The return of Big Dunc? A solid and proven goalscorer with room to grow?” Well… No. One thing I noticed about Inter Milan this summer is that they had an abundance of strikers. Ronaldo, Javier Saviola and Álvaro Recoba is all the quality you need in that area, so to my absolute delight, they agreed to sell me their 4th choice striker.
Fuck me running, we got Christian Vieri. The same Vieri who’s scored 73 goals and registered 12 assists for Inter since the inception of this save. The same Vieri who’s been awarded 32 Player of the match awards over the same period. The same Vieri who just this calendar year has won all of these accolades (And quite a few that wouldn’t fit on the screen):
The Champions League Golden Boot! The Best Player in Europe! 39 goals in a season! How the fuck have they let him go for £12M??? Like with Rio, I’ve had to stagger the payments over the next few years, but I’m so excited to have him in. Just look at this and let’s drool together for a few seconds:
Oh that reminds me, Aimar’s just broken his toe and is out for a couple of months, which is a shame, but once this quartet eventually starts playing their beautiful music together, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
In retrospect I should’ve let Myhre go for £4M last Summer as this year when I did want rid of him, I could only get £3.5M. Oh well. He and Carsley were both surplus to requirements, so they’ve left and I wish them luck.
Anyway let’s finally talk about our matches so far.
We started promisingly – The reserves beat Gent over 2 legs and we saw off newly promoted Stoke at their place in a match that included a debut goal from Vieri, but then… Anfield.
I don’t know if José said something at half time or if he pumped them full of that stuff from Space Jam… But the football version. This is back in the day when his shtick wasn’t so played out, so maybe he genuinely just encouraged them to perform at a level they never knew they had, like when you hear about mothers lifting a car to save their kids. In short though, we got absolutely battered. On the plus side, Nakata’s first goal for the club was a beauty – He ran the length of the pitch and battered the ball into top bins from 30 yards. In other circumstances, do that for Everton at Anfield and you’re an instant club legend, but I think everyone would probably rather just forget this one.
Luckily Vieri and Dunne helped us get straight back on the horse against Leeds the next game and we’re now successfully back in form, having mullered Newcastle and Charlton.
1st January 2002
Sooo… I don’t know if the last piece of the puzzle was Rio or Christian or a combination of both, but we’ve definitely broken this database at this point.
There is no fucking way that this should be possible. Right? It never happens to me at least. Wanna see the Champions League group?
What is going on? A particular highlight for me was the time that the home leg against Inter coincided with an international break, so aside from the odd player we were both playing reserve teams. Ours turned out to be quite a bit better.
Come with me on this trail of thought – Obviously I’m still sceptical that this form will keep going. Second half of the season syndrome is strong with this team, so we could still drop out of every competition like a stone. BUT I’m now thinking that the point of this save has changed. I’ve gone from apathy to curiosity over these 2 and a half years. I reckon we won every competition for the next 10 years when we signed Pablo Aimar and our other dirt cheap global all stars. Some of them genuinely seem to be game breaking. So now I’m wondering… Just how broken can we really be? How ridiculously overpowered can I make this club? First things first, I think we need to tweak our primary formation. Probably keep the 4-2-4, or possibly swap to a flat 4-3-3. I want something that’s still intense but doesn’t kill us from March onwards. I also want a more conservative system to play against the big lads away from home. I’m going to have a play with that over January.
To be honest there’s not much more to tell you at this point. I’ve tied Weir, Pembridge and Gerrard to new 1 year deals as they’re all solid enough backup players and they were due to leave in the Summer.
That’s it, though. Onwards to… Probably victory, right? You’d think.
14th May 2002
Yup. That’s victory, alright. Insane, record breaking victory.
Let me start with our system. I experimented with it a little in January, especially with our strategy for away matches against tough teams, which always seem to be a lottery for us. We have the potential to either batter or to be battered but there’s generally not much middle ground. Fortunately enough we had a run of 3 away games against Leeds, Arsenal and United for me to experiment.
Against Leeds I used a very basic and conservative 4-3-3, hoping to draw the home team in and hit them with devastatingly quick counter attacks. It didn’t work very well at all and they battered us through the first half. We did get better in the second half when we switched to a 4-2-3-1 with Nakata in the hole, but we finished with a fairly even 1-1 draw.
Against Arsenal we went 4-2-3-1 from the off but again, we struggled for large portions of the game. With a quarter of an hour to go we were trailing 1-2 and I brought Zapata onto the right wing, shifting Aimar into the hole as an advanced playmaker, as oppose to the attacking midfielder role Nakata had been playing. Vieri also became a complete forward. BANG! We tore through the Gunners’ defence, scoring 4 late goals. “Eureka!” I cried, swivelling in my squeaky office chair. “I’ve fucking cracked it!” United were next in the FA Cup and I was about to unleash this new system upon them with a second playmaker in the hole from the start. I’d like to know how they planned on stopping that.
4 words: Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. Bollocks.
So it’s a bit anticlimactic but in the end I made the decision to just play the lottery and use my 4-2-4 away from home. I have altered our primary system to be slightly less draining on the players – Press a tiny bit easier, play a tiny bit slower etc. I’d also somehow not put us on “Be more expressive” all this time that we’ve had Aimar, Riquelme and co either, so that’s now on too.
We’ve had a bit of a weird spell with injuries. At the end of last season we got hit all over the park with various muscle injuries and I reasoned that it was my tactics, so the change to a less intense style since Christmas definitely seems to have helped, however we have still been hit pretty badly in concentrated areas. All 4 of my full backs have had a rough time for example, with Arruabarrena and Xavier being particularly unlucky. Arruabarrena is just back in full training in time for the Summer after missing 3 months, while Xavier’s 2 months into a damaged cruciate that could keep him out until Christmas. Ball and Beletti have luckily only had little niggles here and there. Richard Dunne (Torn abdominal muscle) has struggled for a few months too, which has made our defensive depth paper thin. The most worrying injury area thankfully came when we already had the title wrapped up. Petr Cech ended up with a hernia and so excited was Paul Gerrard to finally step onto the pitch, he pulled his groin and I had to stick 16 year old Joel Edmondson in net for the last game. As I say, we had nothing to play for at that point anyway, but I am baffled how the injuries have been so concentrated in certain areas.
Anyway, how did we do? Obviously you already know some of the story by now. We ran away with the league title, setting records for number of points, number of goals, lowest number of defeats, highest number of wins and probably some others that I’m forgetting. Considering some of the defensive crises we’ve had, I’m really pleased that we managed to keep our good league form going until the very end.
Our reserves were dumped out of the League Cup by Second Division side Wigan in September, which I forgot to mention in January. I’ve no regrets though, it was just one of those games – Disallowed goal, hit the post, concede 2 goals from 3 shots on target. You know the type. I think I’m actually yet to win a League Cup game 3 years into this save and that’s something I’d quite like to rectify next season.
I’ve showed you United dumping us out of the FA Cup, but the real story was in our spectacular Champions League exit. We were dealt what looked like a pretty strong group for the 2nd phase, but it turned out to be straightforward enough.
And then we went to the quarter finals against Inter. “Inter?” you cry, “The jokes that you wiped the floor with in the first group stage by an aggregate score of 13-2?” The very same. Only they were different now. I don’t know if they were in bad form or just didn’t take those first matches seriously, but in the quarters, we got the Inter I had expected the first time around and they were a fucking nightmare.
The home leg was the first day that I’ve ever been unhappy with David Unsworth. My Captain. Genuinely my favourite player at around this time in real life as he too was a left back and he too probably started playing there because he was left footed and not very good on the ball. When Simic hacked down Vieri in the box, Davie smacked in the opening goal from the spot, but Ronaldo equalised after 20 minutes. The game was on a knife edge coming up to half time and then in stoppage time, the England International went in 2 footed on Luigi Di Biagio. You can see what happened in the second half for yourself. I was gutted. 4 away goals against us and I was now without Xavier, Arruabarrena, Dunne and captain Unsworth for the second leg. The defence that had been paper thin was now spiderweb thin.
In all fairness, the fightback in Milan was beautiful. We gave absolutely everything and in the 83rd minute we were winning 5-3. We just needed 1 more goal to take us through on away goals… But Fiore scored for the hosts. A Radzinski penalty gave us hope once more, but then Zamorano put us to bed. It ended 6-5 (7-9 on aggregate) and our Champions League dream was over, but fuck me we went out fighting.
Our top scorer once again was Tomasz Radzinski with 35 goals from 37 games. He didn’t quite manage to equal last year’s total of 36, but having played 5 fewer matches he actually comes away with his best goals per game ratio yet. Vieri and Unsworth both put in extremely strong showings, although 21 goals from a centre back is just bizarre. Special mention to Nick Barmby, who scored 14 goals even though he was our 2nd choice left winger. Not bad……. We also had so many different goalscorers this season that they just barely fit on 1 page of my squad list, which is pretty nice to see. It’s also worth mentioning that Nakata’s incredible effort against Liverpool in August won the Premiership goal of the Season award.
Aimar is in a similar situation to Radzinski – 22 assists this season, which is 3 fewer than his debut campaign, but he scored 2 more goals and thanks to a few injuries, played 9 fewer times, so per game he’s had a great year. How dare Radzinski be 1st for goals and 2nd for assists? The man’s a machine. Vieri’s been extremely good too in terms of both goals and assists and I’m really happy with his debut season.
So where on Earth does all of this leave us? This season has been extremely confusing for me. At first I thought we were genuinely broken and would just wipe the floor with anyone we came across, but I no longer think that’s the case, for obvious reasons. I do think that we’re a very, very good team. Comfortably the best side in England, although wins against the big English teams, especially away from home, are still nowhere near guaranteed.
I also thought that our ultra rapid improvement through the hoovering up of young stars for next to no money was a sustainable strategy, but I was being naive. Most of those stars seem to have moved now (If you were wondering, CR7 and Messi haven’t and are still available for under £10M, but I’m a man of principles and my scouts still haven’t recommended them to me), so that transfer strategy is pretty much dead. We can still pick up cheap regens, but they’re nowhere near as good as the likes of Aimar. Prices for the best players are climbing rapidly and it’s going to get harder and harder to bring in that World Class quality, especially as Premier League clubs in 2002 are making nowhere near as much as their 2020 counterparts.
Luckily, I think my first team is pretty much complete, so we might not need to do all that much in this Summer’s transfer window. I’m definitely concerned about right back, but I’ll think more about that next episode. For now, we get to kick back in our open top bus, blast some Shaggy out of the tape deck, pop open a bottle of cheap bubbly and enjoy our victory lap of Liverpool. Cheers.