Football Manager 2020 ‘The Pilgrimage’ #7 – Injury Woes and Familiar Foes

Our second season is finally here, and it’s our first in League One in two years! If you’ve missed the last part of the story, you can catch it here.

“What do you mean there’s nobody we can replace Tafari [Moore] with?!” The words exploded out of my mouth; furious droplets of saliva hitting the boardroom table, unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity during my tirade.

“Come on, RPW. You know we’ve looked – we just couldn’t find any quality that fit your ‘DNA’ and could replicate what Tafari brought to the team. I mean, if we were able to verge slightly away from your search parameters, there are plenty of talented pla-” Paul Sturrock was unfortunately cut off as I interrupted,

“No – we have already had to compromise more than I’d expected we’d to. If we’re spending money to sign this right wing-back then he needs to fit the bill in terms of what the team needs, and he won’t fit into the team if he doesn’t have the DNA! The season starts tomorrow and all we’ve got in that position is a youngster who doesn’t fit the DNA and a defensive midfielder who has struggled whenever he has had to cover there!”

Sheepishly, my Chief Scout and former Argyle midfield maestro, David Friio, put a stray arm across Paul, pulled him back to his seat and slid a file across the table towards me. “Boss, this is the only player we could find that was of decent quality and fit your DNA, please, take a look. We’d probably have to pay more than we’d like for him – and it’s not 100% whether he’ll be able to make the step up – but he may be our only option.”

August 2020

Considering it was my only choice (and I had to bring someone in), in came Zak Mills from League Two Oldham Athletic for a fee of £190k. Although this was less than the fee we received for Tafari Moore, if push came to shove I probably wouldn’t have spent as much, if I could have helped it. Relatively experienced in comparison to the rest of my young squad, Zak offers more of a defensive edge than the very attacking Neco Williams and can act as a solid backup/rotation option.

The First Game of the Season

(You may notice in the graphics above, I’ve redesigned the kits for this season! The home kit would be inspired by a classic 1960s design, while the away kit would be a homage to the ‘Tangergreen’ days of away kits when I first got into Plymouth Argyle. The third kit, alternatively, is purely a thing of imagination!)

The opening day of the 2020/21 season was to be held in Essex, away to fellow promotion winners Colchester United. Although preseason had not been too bad, we were thrown a curveball in first-choice goalkeeper Alex Palmer suffering a lower back stress fracture the day before the season started. He would be out for at least 6 weeks – not the best of starts!

Luckily, Mike Cooper was a very apt replacement and would be one of very few players in the starting lineup that were here last season; Neco Williams, Perry Ng, Luka Racic, Scott Wharton and Tayo Edun would all make their debut in the opening fixture. About 30 seconds into the match, Calum McFadzean would go down to a [insert injury here]: once again, not the best of starts… Joel Grant would be substituted on as his replacement, with Argyle going on to dominate.

While debutant Williams and (the normally reliable) Ryan Taylor would disappoint and be substituted early in the second half, defensive midfielder Adam Randell was a force to be reckoned with from a deeper midfield position. The young prospect sprayed several key passes to the wing-backs and strikers to create a whopping 6 chances, however the Greens could not find their way through Colchester’s back line. At last – in the 94th minute – a through ball from Conor Grant would find the feet of last season’s top scorer Dom Telford, who would slot it cooly past Dean Gerken. 1-0!

You may have also noticed that on the bench for the Colchester match was a surprise addition in youth striker Kelsey Mooney. This was as a result of a very unfortunate leg break suffered by (arguably our best player in pre-season) Jamie Proctor. I would immediately cancel the loan, and so began the hunt for a new pressing forward.

The rest of the month would go very well, with Argyle picking up form straight away. A home win against QPR would follow the opening day victory, and trips on the road to Gillingham and Millwall in the first round of the Carabao Cup would go just as well. In the first few fixtures, Ryan Taylor shone, scoring 3 goals in 2 games, however it was the performance of youth pair Kelsey Mooney and Ryan Bevan. The young players would turn the Millwall game on its head, with Bevan (playing at right wing-back) feeding two chances to the energetic Mooney, who would be clinical when given these opportunities. The only downside of these matches would be that young right wing-back Neco Williams would be out for at least 4 weeks with a foot injury, leaving Zak Mills the opportunity to shine. Just before the Millwall match, we would also bring in our replacement for Jamie Proctor…

While not exceptional in any particular area, 22 year-old striker Sam Smith (on loan from Reading) would join the squad. Smith had a decent season last year, netting 12 goals in 41 appearances for League Two side Cambridge United. Smith had not taken part in a full pre-season for the Berkshire outfit so it would take a fair few games with our U23s to bring him up to fitness. Smith would net twice in his first two games, scoring in wins against Bradford City and Tranmere Rovers. Dom Telford would also shine in the fierce 2-1 win against Bristol Rovers.

Our fortunes would unfortunately change in the second round of the Carabao Cup at home to AFC Bournemouth, where an early goal from Jefferson Lerma would consign Argyle out of the competition. This had clearly knocked The Pilgrims’ confidence: Ipswich Town (a potential playoff contender) would trounce us 2-0 at Portman Road in a very poor performance. It was another match that new signing Zak Mills would not impress in.

Before the transfer window would end, impressive duo Kelsey Mooney and Ryan Bevan would go out on loan to Vanarama National League side Macclesfield Town and Vanarama National North side Kidderminster Harriers respectively.

Argyle would shoot straight to the top of the League One table, with the board very happy with the way we had started the season. The ever-impressive Adam Randell would come third in Young Player of the Month and I would win my first League One Manager of the Month award. Our month would then end with the good news that the board had agreed to develop our training facilities!

September 2020

In contrast to August, September was an entirely different animal.

Since the beginning of the save, this was probably the worst month of form that we have had. We’d initially go down to ethereal sh*t-housers Wycombe Wanderers in the Mickey Mouse Trophy, would grind out draws against Burton, Blackpool and MK Dons, and would bottle a 2-0 lead away to Grimsby, where a Jan Zamburek hattrick would send us the 345 mile drive back home with nothing to show for it. Argyle seemed to have a bit of fear factor this month, most prominently shown in the away trip to Coventry City: Argyle would be 3-0 up at half time, but would be lucky to salvage a 4-4 draw at the end of 90 minutes. In this month Mike Cooper and Danny Rose would impress, but Zak Mills and Matt Butcher would have a torrid time. The poor form was not helped by the injury recurrence of Callum McFadzean, with Joel Grant out of form and Tayo Edun doing his best to cover the position. A tactical change was needed, as we were being constantly caught out by long balls over the top of my back line.

Tactical Changes

As previously stated, our defence was constantly being caught on the back foot by long balls over the top and through balls splitting my slow defence. Equally, analysis showed that in midfield we were losing a lot of possession, and considering we have the majority of our players playing through the middle there was clearly something up. As a result, I added the instructions ‘mark tighter’ and ‘play out of the back’ to my centre-backs in an attempt not to lose possession as much, and pulled my high line back to make it easier to defend on the occasions that we would lose possession. Although this system had clearly served us well last season, the increase in quality due to the step up to League One proved that we had to adapt and improve.

As a result of our poor form in September, Argyle would slip two places down the League One table to third, level on points with 2nd place Ipswich and behind league leaders Barnsley. Despite this, Simon Hallett and the rest of the board continue to back me, although I would have liked to have been scored higher than a C+ in terms of match results and fan transfer opinion.

Despite this, there were some positives: Versatile midfielder Ryan Bevan would impress in his first month on loan to Kidderminster Harriers, scoring a cracking 4 goals from a right-back position! Danny Rose would also be unlucky to miss out on League One Player of the Month, coming second to Ipswich Town’s Kayden Jackson (who gave us a torrid time at the end of this month). In terms of personal accolades, I would finally acquire the highest coaching badge in my Continental Pro License.

The need for an upturn in form was abundantly clear, with the above message popping into my inbox following the Ipswich game. Everything was crossed for some sort of improvement in October.

October 2020

As an answer to my prayers from the previous month, we did see a bit of an improvement! We started off at home to Shrewsbury Town, completely dominating from the outset after an early Dominic Telford goal put us ahead. Unfortunately, we would concede a late set piece goal and were very unlucky to end up with just the one point. I risked rotating the squad against Arsenal U23s in the Trophy and it paid off: Perry Ng would get his first Argyle goal, Telford would grab another and Taylor would score 2 to beat the youngsters 4-0. We’d continue this dominant form against Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland due to big performances from Perry Ng and Danny Rose, but would unfortunately go down to two 1-0 losses against Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United due to silly mistakes. We were performing well, and consistent results had to be close by. Perry Ng in particularly stood out in October: the ex-Crewe Alexandra captain bagged 3 goals from centre-back this month.

Ultimately, we were heading back in the right direction; we’d leapfrog Ipswich to 2nd place in the League One table, but it was tight at the top. Clearly the match performances were picking up and the new signings were impressive, as reflected in this month’s Manager Performance Summary.

I was also very surprised at the end of October: one of the youth candidates from last year’s intake, left wing-back Eddie Barry-Murphy, would get his first call-up to international duty. The youngster would play in three fixtures for Republic of Ireland U19s; it will be interesting to see how he does next time!

It has been a mixed start to the season but one that we can definitely be proud of. The board’s expectations were of course just to survive our first League One season without the threat of relegation, and we’re definitely far from that currently.

Next time: we evaluate the squad in preparation for January, we go for a cup run and we see if our tactical changes work long-term…

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