How best to run a football club? With big spending? With youth development? Making it up as you go along? Unless you have hundreds of millions of pounds, you’ll never have the chance to put your ideas into practice. But with Football Manager becoming more realistic and more immersive every year, perhaps the game could be used as the framework for a theoretical experiment. We asked Alex Stewart to take over a club and guide it for five seasons with a strict adherence to the ideals of Moneyball. Then we were having so much fun, we asked him to do another five seasons too.
Well that was pretty good, wasn’t it? European glory and a 5th place finish, despite those pre-season predictions of mid-table mediocrity. Indeed, TEAMTalk.com’s season review cites my Bristol City as the biggest overachievers, which is surely what every Moneyball team sets out to be.
We move up 93 places in the European club rankings to a heady 41st, making us the 7th highest ranked English club. We also climb from 24th to 13th in the world’s richest clubs list, more valuable than Roma, Inter, and Dortmund. I use some of this new-found wealth to improve my training facilities again; once complete, I’ll have the best possible training for both senior and youth squads.
The major weakness of the club as a whole is the youth set-up, but I cannot improve the recruitment any further, except by getting an affiliate club, so I ask the board to have a think about that. Bristol City have not produced a decent youth prospect since Dominic French, who is only rated 3.5 star potential and didn’t exactly set the world alight on a series of loan spells.
It’s a worry, especially with the continued difficulties around European squad selection and home-grown players, but it’s not a situation that can be solved overnight. The board come back to me with various suggestions for an affiliate and I pick Shakhtar Donetsk, largely because their nickname is The Miners. Everything has a deeply rational justification in my mind, anyway.
I am offered interviews for the Portugal job and, a first for me, by a club not based in England, Sampdoria. Naturally, I decline. Freiburg follow suit but get the same answer. Laurent Blanc is fired as manager of Real Madrid and Slaven Bilic is booted out of Manchester United in a France ’98 evoking moment of synchronicity. The press link me with both jobs but I affirm my loyalty to Bristol City. Conte moves to Madrid and I am immediately linked with the vacant Juventus post. Oh, the swirl of public speculation. Now I know how Tim Sherwood must have felt. Ray Wilkins retires as a coach and I sign a new goalkeeping coach in his stead, Dean Kiely from West Brom, for £34k and £1.5k per week in wages.
In terms of weaknesses, the area of most goals conceded has moved to in front of the penalty area from the wings. I suppose this is a natural adjunct to playing with a midfield two and doubling up on the wings with a winger and full-back. While weakness is a very important part of sorting out your side to bear in mind, it’s also worth remembering there will always be an area of comparative weakness and that tactical shifts will likely create these as much as player issues.
The 4-2-3-1 allows for greater attacking possibilities from the centre for opposition teams that a 5-3-2 did, but in turn strengthens the wide areas. It’s also worth remembering that Barkley and Chalobah, my two first choice centre midfielders, were in their first season with the club last season and while both did well, they will likely improve. A strong tackling centre-midfielder, ideally a young one to challenge Chalobah but also to develop while being a second choice, would be ideal.
I’d like another striker too, although strikers can be overvalued. If the right one comes along as a listed player or free, I’ll take them because I have concerns about Henriquez’s back-up. I would also like a back-up right-back. Although Bagnack performed well there a few times, it’s not an ideal scenario. Otherwise, I ask my scouts to look at everyone who averaged over 7.00 in any league, all transfer-listed players, and all players whose contracts will expire in the summer. It’s a hell of a list, amounting to several thousand players. Thank goodness I’ve got the summer to do it!
The European Championships plays out in the background, but I don’t send anyone to scout it because, as we know by now, players who perform well at major international competitions are always overvalued and often their performances are not representative of their actual quality. And if they are, I know about them already; it’s a win-win situation.
I pick up 20 year old Colombian striker Lenin Rengifo for £325k and £12k per week; he’s a four star prospect and I’ll loan him straight out to get some experience and playing time.
Dennis Vase, a 21 year old defensive midfielder valued at £6 million is listed by Lyon and I bid £3.6 million. He is a 5 star potential player who has a career average of 7.25 and Danish, so he’s good at adapting and he already knows English.
Luis Miguel Mucino, a 21 year old Mexican striker valued at £12 million is listed by Monaco for £10.25 million. He has superb ratings, is quick and direct, and scored 20 in 25 at 7.64 for the Monaco reserves and is rated by scouts as another 5 star potential player. For my new look, slicker Bristol side, using fast wingers and a high press, he could well be an ideal starting player in the James Wilson mould.
I sign Vase for £3.8 million all in, plus £16.25k per week in wages and Mucino for £13.25 million all in, plus a whopping £105k per week in wages. He had better be worth it!
Ante Coric, a four star attacking midfielder from Croatia, is signed from Manchester City for £2.9 million. He is valued at £9.25 million but my crowd wisdom scouting reported that he could be prised away for a lot less. He averaged 7.24 on loan at Everton last season and can play through the centre or on the left. I now have five 4 star or above attacking midfielders and this part of the squad is complete.
I sell Harrison Reed for £425k to Brighton. He never really developed in the way that I had hoped and though I’m sad to see any former Saint fail, there’s no room for compassion in a Moneyball club.
Tiago Ilori departs to Aston Villa for £500k. I make a £500k loss on him from his original signing fee but he performed admirably enough without ever being a genuine first-teamer. I sell Sandro to Cordoba for a £325k profit – he never really got a look in and I probably shouldn’t have signed him, but I make some money and lose some wages so it’s all good.
The European Championships come and go and are won by Portugal, with a 2-1 victory over Belgium. Holland and Italy offer me jobs to helm their national sides but I decline. Arsenal and Leverkusen offer me interviews as well, but my heart is with Bristol City, Jurgen Klopp finally fulfils his destiny by taking over the Gunners.
Pre-season goes well, all wins and draws. The season proper begins on August 11th with the European Super Cup against my bête noire, Jose bloody Mourinho’s Chelsea. It’s a nice day for the fans etc etc, and my expectations are lower than a chunky pig’s belly, but a man-of-the-match, two goal performance from Ross Barkley in an unusual box-to-box role seals an incredible 3-0 win! The Premier League opens in classic Bristol City fashion with a bizarre 5-5 draw away at Leicester.
Aston Villa, next up, are slaughtered 5-1 at home, with Kihlgren coming off the bench for a brace. Our Champions League group is drawn: we get FC Kobenhavn, Monaco (again), and Leverkusen. I’ll take that. An Oliver Ntcham hat-trick then sees off Blackburn 6-1 at Ewood Park. We are on fire, and Mucino nets on his EPL debut as well.
Just before the window slams shut, I pick up 21 year old ‘keeper Ivan Stoyanov for £6.25 million and £30k per week in wages. He’s averaged 7.34 so far this season and is a 4.5 star prospect. Lopez and Walton are both mardy that I’m not playing them, despite Perin’s excellent form, and so I need a young prospect happy to play in cup competitions and not get grumpy. Tearfully, I also part company with Franco Lujan, the 4 star defensive midfield prospect. I simply cannot get him a work permit and no Dutch clubs want to loan him, so I offer him about and make a £7 million profit. Did I say I was sad? I lied.
A five game unbeaten start to the season comes to an end with a very disappointing 0-1 reverse at home to Manchester United. We win 3-2 at home to Leverkusen but then lose 3-0 away at Chelsea despite playing on the counter. I give the boys a genuine hair-dryer type thing and vent my contemptuous spleen most vigorously at Sallahi who manages to get himself sent off with Grimaldo already injured, leaving me a little light in the left-back department.
Olivier Ntcham is capped in the international break by France, so that’s nice. Captain Pablo Insua also receives international recognition. I like this, because it adds value to players without really demanding that much from them, and also adds to their morale. The result of the season so far is a 6-1 win at home over league leaders Liverpool, with the outstanding Mitchell getting a brace and Rengifo scoring his fifth of the season. A 4-0 win at home to Hull and a 5-0 home thrashing of Kobenhavn follow and we are flying.
Roberto Mancini is re-sacked by Man City and, in a turn of events only plausible in the FM world, Blackburn manager Leon Osman is tapped up for the gig. In fact, though, they offer me a job interview, as do Dortmund; I say no, obviously, because once a Bristol City manager, always a Bristol City manager. At least that’s what the editor of The Set Pieces tells me when I ring him up begging to be allowed to move to a bigger club. Leon gets the job.
Despite a 2-1 loss away at Leverkusen, we qualify from our Champions League group in second place, which is a superb achievement. We get Barcelona in the knock-out round, which is someone’s idea of a good joke. At the halfway point of the season, we sit second in the table on 37 points, 4 behind Liverpool and level with Manchester United but ahead on goal difference.
The window opens and I sell Konrad Nalepa to Fulham for £2 million. He is not getting any games for me due to the form of Mucino and the formation requiring only one striker. I’m given a contract that will see me through to 2025. I’ll be 43 then. Time flies. Manchester United come in with a £14.5 million bid for Lewis Cook which I reluctantly accept because, you know, Moneyball rules. He accepts it somewhat less reluctantly. He played 73 EPL games for me, averaging 6.97, and I made a £13.1 million profit on him. Decent business, that.
Inter then prise away Frank Bagnack for £14.5 million as well (he’s valued at £6.75 million, so I am bound by the rules to say accept the bid). He played 52 EPL games at an average of 7.05 and I make a £12.3 million pound profit on him, with Dennis Vase or Dominic French ready to step into his shoes.
The sales don’t unsettle the side and we beat Everton 6-1 away in the FA Cup in our first fixture after the departures. We go out in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup to Manchester United but I’m not too bothered as we still have the Champions League, the FA Cup, and the EPL on the boil. City for the treble, right?
Well, we draw 1-1 at home to Barcelona, hitting the post several times, the bar twice, and missing a penalty. Even the post-match interview takes the piss out of me for that, and rightly so. We lose 2-1 away at Norwich after Lee Mason, who appears to be woeful in FM as he is in life, gifts the home team two soft penalties. Arsenal put us out of the FA Cup Fifth round after a shoot-out. It feels like things are slipping away.
There are 11 games left in the EPL. We lose 2-0 at the Camp Nou and leave the Champions League, but even qualification from the groups should be considered amazing, and the Barcelona team we lose to features Messi. Suarez, Verratti, Doria, and Neymar.
Our final realistic aim is qualifying for European competition by league position. Excellent wins away at Manchester City (3-0), and at home to Fulham (3-1) and Arsenal (4-2), as well as draws at Swansea, Everton, and Fulham, ensure that even a final defeat away at Stoke (2-1) do not rob us of next season’s airmiles. Indeed, we finish 3rd, automatically qualifying for the Champions League again.
Along with winning the European Super Cup, we’ve been semi-finalists in the Capital One Cup, we’ve reaching the FA Cup 5th round and, most impressively, we’ve qualifyied from the group stages in the Champions League. It is another thoroughly satisfying season. Chelsea win the league and FA Cup again, with Swansea, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest going down.
Most pleasing, though, are the player performances. Pablo Insua is picked for the Premier League team of the year, averaging 7.24. My star signing Mucino, bought for £10.25 million and now worth £17.5 million, scores 21 goals in his 33 EPL games, a staggering return for a 21 year old and worth every penny of his reduced fee from Monaco. The ‘keeper Stoyanov ends up playing regularly and averaging 6.94; he is more than ready to take over the gloves full-time from old-stager Perin now. Vase averages 6.76 but does not play regularly, showing instead his versatility either as a centre-back or central midfield. Coric plays well though often injured, and averages 6.84; I suspect much more will come from both of these players.
Ntcham, now in his third season, averages 7.36, scoring 9 and setting up 12, a neat return on the £2m or so I paid for him in 2018. Mitchell, now worth £14.25 million, having been signed on a free, averages 7.28 and scores 11 goals, creating another 11. Boga, another free and in his second season, scores 13 EPL goals for 7.20. Both new signings and previous ones bedded in very quickly this season and adapted both to the increased use of 4-2-3-1 and some additional positional rotation: for example, Boga played as an attacking midfielder and a winger, Coric as an attacking or a central midfielder. By the end of the season, Chalobah was playing as a centre-back and Mucino even did a stint on the wing when Ntcham was injured. Having players who cope in various positions gives cover and flexibility and helps a squad adapt, both to changes in formation and the sale of players.
Financially, it was another solid performance. In terms of transfers, the story was the same as in seasons gone by. Chelsea had a net spend this season of £56.5m. I finish two places lower with a net spend of MINUS £9 million. In the FFP period covered by the season I made a profit, or rather Bristol City did, of £95.71m, mostly from TV revenue and prize money, including £19.69m for the EPL finish.
For the coming season, we even secure a new main sponsor for £4.5m per year when the previous deal was only £1.75m. The club is wealthy and new training facilities to improve the youth set-up are agreed.
The season ends with a frenzied blood-letting of managers: Pardew is sacked from Stoke, Delia from Tottenham, Mazzarri from Liverpool, Dyche from West Ham, and McAllister from Swansea. But not me. I’m going nowhere. Next season brings more Champions League, and I want to win something, gently cradled by the loving, wise embrace of Moneyball.
Click here for part eight.
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter (@AFHStewart)