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.
In Part One, Alex took over impoverished Bristol City and promptly set about laying waste to League One. A combination of shrewd backroom appointments and a devastatingly effective 5-3-2 formation saw the Robins cruise to the title and secure promotion to the Championship.
In Part Two, Bristol City were promoted again, albeit after a far tougher battle for supremacy. The Premier League awaits. But surely he can’t be so successful again? It’s Moneyball. It’s not magic. Right?
In Part Three, Bristol City overcame relegation fears with a second half of the season resurgence, thanks to club record January signing Nolan Roux. With vital experience in the top flight gained, will they be able to push on for next season?
In Part Four, Bristol City did more than just consolidate. The Robins finished seventh and qualified for the Europa League. It’s all going a little too well. Surely this can’t continue?
In Part Five, Bristol City were bustled out of the Europa League in the first round, but that only worked in their favour. The Robins go from strength to strength and now they’ve only bloody well qualified for the Champions League.
Europe, baby! And not just a quick break on the Costa del Sol or trips to chilly former Soviet Bloc countries in the Europa League. The Champions League is the big time and Bristol City are there on merit. The board are over the moon with me and rightly so. In all the hullabaloo, I forgot to mention I won the EPL Manager of the Year. That’s something to live up to and if I’m to do that, I need to strengthen.
The hard work and the constant renewal never stops (or it wouldn’t be constant, right?) My squad is still weak in work-rate and goals are still being leaked most down the left-hand side, but I have confidence in Alex Grimaldo to tighten things up once he gets a full run in the side. In terms of purchases, therefore, I look to add quality as much as to improve on areas of weakness.
I look once more at frees and transfer-listed players as the most cost effective way to reshape the squad, finding value where others don’t see it. I scout and then lure Jeremie Boga from Chelsea on a free for £200k signing fee and £9k per week. He is a four star rated attacking midfielder and right winger. He averaged 6.85 on loan at Preston, which is not bad for a free.
Sandro, a striker from Real Betis, is picked up on a free as well, costing a mere £80k in signing feeand £8k per week. He averaged 7.04 for Betis’ B-side and is a four star prospect.
Demetri Mitchell, a four and a half star potential left-winger with biting pace, is snapped up on a free having been released by Manchester United. He asks for and receives a £725k signing fee and £23.5k per week in wages. He can be the new Luke Freeman, perhaps a little less creative but quicker and more direct, better at crossing and dribbling. He averaged 7.26 on loan at Stoke in the EPL, before barely playing for United the following season.
I pull off an extraordinary coup, signing transfer listed Ross Barkley from Manchester United for a total of £13 million including signing fees and £90k per week. Manchester United make a £5 million loss on the deal, which tickles my Moneyball fancy. While English players can often be over-valued, this signing seems to suggest that United under-valued him and his listed status means I’m not having to prise him away from a hefty contract with an over-the-odds bid. He also only played one game last season despite having 37 England caps and is desperate to prove a point, perfect for my Bristol team.
Frank Bagnack, a transfer-listed four star centre- back and product of La Masia is bought from Celta for a pittance, £2.2 million all told, plus £26.5k per week. He averaged 6.94 over two seasons in La Liga and is young enough to improve.
I also pick up transfer-listed Nathan Chalobah, an athletic roaming playmaker for £6 million from Manchester United, another young English international. He averaged 7.20 in a handful of performances for the Red Devils and has 6 full international caps.
My success has not gone unnoticed, and the buyers come calling properly for the first time. Spurs bid £7.6 million for Pablo Insua but he says no. Sheffield Wednesday try for Darwin Machis, but he also says no. Both times, wages are cited as being insufficiently enticing. I’m pleased to hold on to Insua, of course. Machis, by contrast, has already faded into the under 21s and I would love to rid myself of his idle arse.
As I am honour bound to accept offers that exceed the value of my players, James Wilson, my star striker, is picked up by Liverpool for an initial £20 million, rising to £25 million. This is an initial profit of £18.5 million, having paid effectively £120k per goal. Monaco splash the cash on Mario Pasalic for an initial £14 million, rising to almost £20 million. This is a profit of £11.2 million not including wages, and one season of a 7.07 average: good business, that.
31 year old Nolan Roux is sold to FC Lorient, saving £25k per week in wages and garnering £2 million in transfer fees. He scored 29 Premier League goals for Bristol in three seasons, but I have recouped half what I paid for him and I have three top class potential strikers ready to step into his shoes. In truth, he is probably fourth or even fifth in the striker pecking order now that Henriquez is back from his loan spell and in possession of the much-coveted EU dual nationality. Wes Burns is shipped off to Sheffield Wednesday for £400k. His 28 goals in League 1 were wonderful, but time and a higher league waits for no man; so farewell, then, Mr. Burns. I sell Gaston Silva to Brescia for £1 million, a £300k profit for half a season’s work.
Bristol City are now the 24th richest club in the world. With their marble halls and whatnot, Arsenal top the list. Season expectations are set at Europa League qualification, granting me a transfer kitty of £4.7 million and £1.29 million per week in wages, and I crank the squad bonuses up to whatever the financial equivalent of 11 is. We are given almost £60 million again for domestic television rights.
The EPL clubs release players: Wayne Rooney, Pablo Zabaleta, Sami Khedira, Cesc Fabregas, and Theo Walcott are among those cast into the footballing ether. Of course, none of them interest me as they are all too old.
I make a few additions to the backroom staff too. Though it sticks in my real-world craw, I ask Robbie Savage to have a hair cut and start coaching tactics: he actually has exceptional coaching stats, especially in tactics and defence, as well as an A grade coaching licence. It’s a funny old world. He costs £5k per week and £20 for the trim.
Antonio Pintus and Massimo Neri augment my fitness team for a combined £7k per week, bringing my fitness coaching up to five stars for strength and aerobic. Lastly, Nestor el Maestro, by name and by nature, is brought in for his 20-rated technical ability on £5.25k per week.
I assess the team I now have and decide to try a change of formation. The 5-3-2/3-5-2 didn’t work all that well in the EPL and while 4-4-2 did at times, I suspect that for Europe we will need to be more savvy and technical. Recalling the success of Luke Freeman as a central attacking midfielder in my old formation, and drawing on the abilities of Mitchell and Ntcham, I decide to train the lads in a 4-2-3-1.
In Chalobah and Barkley I have two central midfielder of great technical and physical ability, which compensates for there only being two of them. I can employ an attacking midfield trident of any three from Mitchell, Freeman, Ntcham, Nathan, and Boga, which gives me options, and both Nalepa and Kihlgren can play wide left too. Having lost Wilson, I employ Henriquez as my starting lone striker, but both Nalepa and Kihlgren bring options with differing strengths: Nalepa is an off-the-shoulder running behind kind of striker like Henriquez, whereas Kihlgren brings more physicality and can be used as a target man against weaker centre-backs or to hold the ball up if we play on the counter to bring in the midfield.
Pre-season goes well and the new formation looks workable. We draw CSKA Moscow in the Champions League knock-out thingy. A 3-1 aggregate win, with Henriquez scoring in both legs, sees us through to the Group Stages and a £6.88 million purse for getting there. We are drawn in a group with Monaco, Porto, and Athletic Bilbao.
The domestic season begins well, with a win over Nottingham Forest away, followed by a succession of draws. Emphatic victories at home over Arsenal (2-1), Manchester United (4-1), and Manchester City (2-0), along with a 6-1 walloping of Newcastle away are the best results, but we manage a series of good results over lesser teams too.
Europe is a distraction that stretches the squad, especially as we have no genuine home-grown players and must therefore compete with a squad of 21. We manage a mixed bag of results in a tough group, beating Porto 5-1 at home but losing 4-0 away to Monaco. Bilbao are beaten home and away but, in the end, a final day victory by Porto over Monaco at the Estadio de Dragao leaves us third in the group on 10 points, one behind Monaco and two behind Porto. It’s disappointing but we did very well considering both the strength of the opposition and the thinness of the squad.
Our final league game of 2019 is a disappointing 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest at home, but we finish the year in 1st place in the Premier League, two points ahead of Manchester United but having played one game more.
The first game of 2020 is a home tie against Southampton in the FA Cup (we went out of the Capital One Cup in the fourth round away at Manchester City 3-2 – focus elsewhere etc etc.). We draw 1-1 after Henriquez misses a last minute penalty after what is apparently quite the dive from Mitchell (I couldn’t possibly comment).
The window opens and I sell stalwart Luke Ayling with a tear in my eye for £150k to West Brom. He’s not up to the required standard anymore and was getting frustrated about the lack of playing time, so it’s only fair to let him go, despite the offer not matching his valuation.
I sign 20 year old Swedish attacking midfielder Simen Kampe, who averaged 7.45 for Stromgodset including Champions League experience, for £2.7 million and £18k per week. We then pull off a stunning 2-1 away win at Chelsea to maintain our grip at the top of the Premier League with a 5 point margin, though the chasing pack still have a game in hand. We win the replay at St Mary’s 4-1 with Chalobah putting in an extraordinary performance. We go on a seven match unbeaten run but defeats away at Arsenal and Manchester United see us slide to fifth. In the Europa League, Dynamo Kyiv are dispatched in a scintillating 4-3 aggregate win to set up a 2nd knockout round clash with Freiburg. We beat them 4-1 on aggregate against a backdrop of a mysterious consortium looking to buy the mighty Bristol City. Well, who could blame them? I’m not allowed to buy anyone while this farrago is ongoing.
We beat Everton 2-1 in the FA Cup sixth round to set up a meeting with Manchester City in the Quarters. We get Olympique Lyonnais in the Quarters of the Europa League. We beat Les Gones 2-0 away, then lose in the Premier League to Norwich 3-1, before hosting the French team in the return leg; we win 2-1 to set up a Semi Final against Juventus. Bristol City against Juventus in the semis of a European competition. Silly, frankly. The consortium takes over at Bristol City and the rumour mill suggests I’ll be replaced. I’m too hubristic by this point to believe it.
We suffer a string of poor results as the season tails off, losing 4-1 away at Spurs, drawing with lowly Stoke 2-2 away, and 3-1 to Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final.
The squad are shattered, exhausted and distracted by the off-field shenanigans. The new chairman magnanimously permits me to remain the most successful Bristol City manager of all time, which is nice of him. As if to confirm the validity of his support, we then beat Juventus 3-0 at Ashton Gate, with a Ntcham hat- trick.
We draw away at Man City 2-2, beat Hull 2-1 at home, then lose to Juventus in Turin, but with the score only 3-1, we are through to the Europa League Final against Wolfsburg! We finish the Premier League with a 2-1 win away at West Ham and end up in fifth place on goal difference beneath Manchester United.
Chelsea win with 82 points; we are 11 points behind. Arsenal and Liverpool are above United with one point separating them; we are 6 points ahead of Manchester City and European competition is guaranteed once more! We win £17.5 million for our fifth place finish, adding to a yearly profit of nearly £80 million. We close the first half of the Europa League final at the Amsterdam Arena by taking a 1-0 lead, when Luke Freeman slams home following up a Mitchell cross. Jeremie Boga adds a second after 56 minutes. On 83 minutes, Freeman crosses for Henriquez who hammers it past Benaglio in the Wolfsburg net to make it 3-0. And that’s it! Bristol City have won the Europa League! THE FUCKING EUROPA LEAGUE!
Only five seasons ago, we were in League 1. Boom. That is all. Oh and we win £4 million in prize money.
And how did my signings do? Well, three seasons ago’s signing Pablo Insua, who is now club captain, has increased in value to £9.5 million from £3.5 million and averaged 7.26 in the EPL, my best player performance. New signings Mitchell (7.15 – signed on a free and now worth £13.75 million, having also received England caps), Bagnack (7.03), and Chalobah (7.00) all did well, and Grimaldo (7.21), Ntcham (7.15), and Yedlin (7.02), all previous Moneyball-esque acquisitions, were excellent. Henriquez scores 14 EPL goals in his first proper season (remember too that his wages were paid by his loan clubs so, effectively, this is the first season he has cost me anything despite having been a City player for two years already). Boga (6.90) and Barkley (6.87) did ok in their first season and both increased substantially in value as well: Boga was free and is now worth £8.5 million; Barkley was £13 million including sign-on fees and is now worth £19 million. As for net spend? It was MINUS £19.8 million.
That’s right, despite selling players and making money on the market, I still came 5th in the EPL on goal difference alone and won the Europa League. EPL winners Chelsea had a net spend of £16 million, Arsenal £43.5 million, Liverpool £25 million, and Man United £11 million. Man City, who finished 6 points below me, had a net spend of £91.6 million. The end of season value of the 18 man squad that won the Europa League (did I mention I won the Europa League?) is £161.1 million.
It cost £36.48 million to put the squad together in transfer fees. My net spend over the whole period of this crazy experiment is a mere £2.5 million (6 season’s worth of buying and selling). I have also turned a profit this season of £54 million despite wages increasing sharply with the influx of coaches and various upwards adjustments for yearly increases and competition wins. The club is now worth £451 million apparently. I get almost as much pleasure from guaranteeing the financial health of Bristol City as I do from winning competitions, which is why this approach is so crucial.
So who says Moneyball doesn’t work? Not I and not the board of Bristol City. We are successful, financially healthy, and I manage a happy, valuable squad. Oh and for next season, the new board have given me £61 million as a transfer kitty.
Now what will I do with it?
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter (@AFHStewart)
Is this getting silly now? Have you ever seen anyone enjoy so much success with their Football Manager save? Are you writhing on the floor with jealousy? Write to us and get it out of your system. Email [email protected]