So, we’re back with another update on the never ever boring Bayer Leverkusen save. This is probably the most complicated save I’ve had in a long time on Football Manager. You’d think after a season as dominant as last one that this one would be largely the same, and I’d continue with the same exact squad. Well, no. I’d identified that the squad was ageing in certain areas and certain players were no longer pulling their weight as much as they had in the previous two seasons. As a result, changes were needed.
Also a confession. This isn’t quite the usual mid-season update, because I’ve played through the transfer window, for reasons that you’ll see later. I was going to do a full season update, but with so much to discuss, I think you’d all be very bored by the end of that. Plus, I just love writing about this save.
I’ll discuss tactics first and foremost. In the last update, I revealed that I was switching to a diamond formation (probably my favourite real life formation), and I’ve stuck with it. It’s taken me quite some time to figure it out, but I’ve now settled (I think) on the roles etc. going forward. The main changes are to the instructions (which the diamond seems to be incredibly sensitive to) with the main change being asking the players to play through the middle (whilst increasing the width in order to create central spaces), but I’ve also changed the CWB-A’s to normal WB-A’s after experimenting with WB-D’s similar to @StatisticalApp’s Diamond Dominator tactic that he uses with Stamford (if you haven’t seen that series, go check out his fantastic YouTube channel). The CD-D has also changed to a CD-C, as I noticed that it seemed to work better with a DM-D, giving both positions enough room to manoeuvre, and cover defensively. It also helps when we build up the play, with both players not ending up on top of each other.
In terms of the Bundesliga, we currently sit 2nd in the table, three points behind Bayern, but crucially with two games in hand. The reason we’ve got these two games in hand is as a result of the Club World Championship in December. By the time we went into the competition (which I’ll try not to describe as an inconvenience) we were still three points behind Bayern. Fortunately they’ve slipped up a couple of times in that span, meaning that we can actually leapfrog them if we win our remaining games in hand.
A 16 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss record doesn’t even begin to show how shaky we were at the start of the season. I’m not 100% sure why, but we were pretty terrible. Thiago couldn’t score at all, and Ulrich Isa got injured for 3-4 weeks, and has been in and out of form ever since. We seemed to have a never ending spell of games where we’d play well for 15 minutes in the first half, scrape a couple of goals, before barely being able to string two passes together in the second half. The defence looked a lot more shaky too. The tactic is certainly more attacking than the 4-3-1-2, but we looked very hesitant at the back, something I haven’t been used to. We came up against Bayern at the very end of this horrible run of performances, and managed to scrape a horrible, ugly, defensive 0-0 draw, where we pretty much just kept them at bay for the full 90 minutes, with Alexander Walter (who I now despise) dominating from the wing. I’m going to have to sign him, otherwise he’s going to cause us real problems for the next decade. He still wants to come to us, but Bayern are having none of it. Selfish.
The Bayern match proved to be the turning point, as we started to rediscover our form, and became the Leverkusen that I’ve come to know and expect again. The diamond really settled in after I’d stopped tweaking things, and we went on the run you can see above, going 12 games unbeaten. They’re all comfortable wins too, and we’re scoring more goals this time round, which is due to the prowess of the diamond. All this has brought us back to a point where we can return to our spot at the top of the Bundesliga, and go for three titles in a row. After the inconsistent horrible performances to begin the season, I think we’re pretty lucky to still be in with a shout. Thiago found his scoring boots again too, and although he hasn’t been quite as prolific (he’s been feeling pressured by the attention of Real Madrid, who can do one quite frankly) he’s still within a chance of finishing as Bundesliga top scorer.
I’d also discussed the form of Youri Tielemans in the previous update, and explained that he was a large reason why I moved to the diamond, in order to allow him to get a better grip on games, and have more influence than he’d had for the previous two seasons. He’d been complaining that he didn’t feel that important to the club, so I thought I’d give him a chance, before deciding whether to sell him (knowing the value I could get for him). Tielemans’ form did recover, and he ended the half season with a 7.60 average rating (following some shocking performances at the beginning of the season, where I debated playing ‘8 for first touch’ Pere Busquets instead of him).
We’ve also been pretty active in the cup competitions. We’re still in the DFB Pokal after defeating Mainz and Hertha (who were demolished with Isa scoring a hattrick) to draw Bochum in the quarter final. Like last season, I want to win this trophy, as the club is now at a point where we can just aim to win everything we’re in.
We also won the Club World Championship at a canter, beating Marinos in the semi final, before demolishing LA Galaxy in the final. I did find it to be an annoying inconvenience, but it’s another trophy, making that three so far this year, with both Super Cups and the Club World Championship.
We’ve also been making our way through the group stages of the Champions League. We drew Manchester United, Bordeaux and Sparta Prague this year, with only United really giving us any trouble in the first fixture, but we still won 2-0. I think it shows how far we’ve come that we can ease through the groups like this. Mind, United are not the force they once were, and haven’t won the Premier League since 2017. Either way, we’ve drawn Benfica in the 1st Knockout Round, and hopefully we can make our way past them, and look to repeat in the Champions League. I’d be disappointed with anything less than the semis this time, and I’m hoping to come up against some of Europe’s big boys, who we seemed to miss out last year.
So results wise, things are moving along smoothly after a shaky start. We’re playing good football again and winning games very easily, usually by the end of the first half. We’ve always been very good at killing games before the first half’s even over, and we’ve rediscovered that.
Still, I’ve made yet more changes in the winter transfer window.
Despite his improvements in the first half of the season, I sold Youri Tielemans. I probably wouldn’t have shipped him out had an offer not come in, but PSG wanted him, and wanted him badly, eventually negotiating a deal that will add up to £64M with instalments. When you consider that Tielemans was signed for £26M, that’s a fantastic profit of £38M…..
Or so I thought. This is where the ‘idiocy’ bit comes in. When I signed Tielemans, I’d included a percentage of future fee in my desperation to sign a player of the quality of Tielemans (we were only a Europa League side first season and Tielemans was effectively taking a step down from Juventus). Unfortunately (and stupidly) the future fee was 25%, and I’d forgotten all about it. As a result I had to kiss goodbye to a quarter of the money and give it to the player that was off to PSG to be paid megabucks (£240k a week in fact, a bit bigger than the £105k I was paying him). To say I was annoyed with myself was an understatement, but I still ended up with around £30M to spend on a replacement, with more to come over the next 12 months. Even if you take out greedy Tielemans’ quarter, it’s still a massive profit, and one I was happy to make. Of course, this left me needing an AP-S for the diamond. I tried to sign Sarnataro from Torino, but they wouldn’t even begin negotiations with me when I bid £30M for him. I also tried to sign Pedro Miguel Lopes Souza from CSKA Moscow, but they wanted £45M for him upfront, and I decided it wasn’t worth adding huge future fees into any transfer. Instead I decided to look for a cheaper option.
In the end of a lot of scouting I signed Frenchman Bienvenu Etou from Rennes, for a ridiculously low £5.25M. Etou was coming towards the end of his contract with Rennes and looked unlikely to sign. With other top clubs wanting his services, I decided to make the move now (I needed him immediately anyway). £5.25M for a player that my scouts rate as world class is amazing value. He’s been plugged straight into the diamond at AP-S, and has really hit the ground running, playing 3 games for us with an average rating of 8.30. This looks like a fantastic piece of business. He doesn’t quite have the vision I’d like, but he more than makes up for it in other areas.
This left me with plenty of money left from the Tielemans sale, and I decided to spend a bit more of it. Throughout the past one and a half seasons we’ve been a little bare at full back and it’s undoubtedly been our weakest area. Medaglia and Gaya have been the first choice options, with Pere Busquets being retrained to play right back. When he’s been played elsewhere, 34 year old Gonzalo Castro (who really has declined) has been used as the backup option. Part of it is my loyalty to a player who has never complained about not playing, or playing in lesser competitions, but at the same time I couldn’t find another option for full back. This time however, I was determined to reinvest the money in a left back to provide competition for Gaya, and at the very least, be a solid backup.
This took a long time as there aren’t a lot of good full backs around the footballing world, but I signed another Frenchman in Evan Viennet from Saint-Etienne for £17.25M. He’s still young at 22, and with pace to burn. His attributes aren’t out of this world and I do feel I’ve overpaid a little with this one, but he’s solid in all the important areas, and he’s also hit the ground running for us. I threw him into the starting lineup in the first two Bundesliga games after the winter break and he was player of the match in one of them and has averaged 7.75 for both matches. I’m not sure he’s the starter of the future, but at the very least he will be a very solid backup to Gaya and provide him with some much needed competition, and give us options as the fixtures become more congested towards the end of the season.
This leaves the current first choice lineup as (front line is interchangeable with Thiago/Brandt/Isa as is Oliveira/Bruinsma in the back line):
Medaglia (WB-A), Oliveira (CD-C), Bodin (BPD-C), Gaya (WB-A)
Vener (BBM-S), Etou (AP-S)
Thiago (AF-A), Brandt (T-A)
Very different to the previous years’ teams isn’t it? There are more changes coming at the end of the season too. I don’t think Isa will be staying around any longer, and will probably be moved on with Spurs sniffing around him. Although he’s very good (if in spells), I still get the feeling that he’s getting in the way of Thiago, and Thiago/Brandt is the best strike partnership at the club. I also still need a Number 10. That is the highest priority in the summer. Hajji has been good, if not spectacular, with 6 goals in 9 games from AMC (3 of those have just been scored in our last match). He’s a decent player, but he has games where he just goes missing, and it reminds me why I only signed him as a backup. Still, for now I prefer him to Hakan, who really seems to be declining. I’ll use up every bit of budget I have in the summer to make sure I sign that AMC. If I can’t find a cheaper option, it will have to be Arsenal’s Belgian youngster Francis Mbiyavanga. Ideally, I’d take Alexander Walter, but I’m 99% sure that’s not going to happen.
So that’s everything that’s happened so far this season, and it hasn’t been a quiet one! I’ll update again at the end of the season, hopefully Bundesliga champions for the third time in succession, and doing well in Europe again. Until then, thank you very much for reading, and if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me either via Twitter (@JLAspey) or in the comments section of this blog.