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Young Guns


Mandy42
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I've previously attempted the Sir Alex Ferguson challenge. With Leicester. 

I liked the premise. But must admit I felt little connection to the Foxes, and it faded after a few seasons.

So I started again. 

Anyone unfamiliar with the challenge. You have to replicate the exploits of Alex Ferguson's managerial career with Man Utd. Which begins by simulating the opening season to November the 6th (the day he took over Man Utd) and become the manager of the team sitting 19th in the league (the position Man Utd occupied when he became manager.) 

The rest they say is history.

Now, what makes this save interesting? That come November the 6th 2021. Arsenal were 19th in the Premier league! 

As a Chelsea supporter I'm not going to lie I was conflicted. But getting into the squad. The youth potential at Arsenal could easily rival or surpass Ferguson's class of 92. 

Thus the challenge begins! 

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Football is a funny ole game sometimes. I'm not quite certain what had befallen Arsenal. To see them sat 19th with 10 games played. A solitary win to their name, four draws and five defeats indicating a tale of woe.

That's seven measly points for the mathematically challenged. Only Brentford are in worse shape. Five points and a minus 13 goal difference.

At the dizzying heights of the other end of the table. Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea and Tottenham fill out the top four, with just four points separating them. Then its Liverpool, Aston Villa, Everton, Brighton, Newcastle and Norwich to round out the top 10.

Its even more confusing when, in our first home game. The day after I take charge. We smash five past West Ham for no reply. I didn't even dare change the tactical system. I didn't think there was enough time for it to make a meaningful improvement on proceedings. I just picked the best performing players from those available and crossed my fingers.

After that first game I got the chance to look at the transfer business. And it began to make some kind of sense.

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Looking more in depth at the results before I took over. 

Opening day was a 2-0 defeat against Man City at the Etihad. Not the best place to go for game week one. But is there ever a better week?

The other defeats were a 3-2 defeat away to Southampton at the end of September. 

Three 2-1 defeats on the bounce, either side of the international break in October. Against Spurs and Wolves at home. With an away defeat by Burnley sandwiched in the middle.

The solitary win came away at Brentford. A 2-0 ray of sunshine in an otherwise pitch black sky.

The draws were 0-0 against Liverpool and Leicester at home in August. 1-1 against Watford at home in September. And the final game, a 2-2 draw away to Leeds.

We are still in the Carabao Cup. 3-2 away win against Championship Fulham in the second round. 3-1 win against Aston Villa also away in the third round. Then a 2-1 away win against Watford in the fourth. Though only due to a 90+5 penalty conversion by Alexandre Lacazette.

At the point I took over the team had scored a total of 10 goals in the league:

Alexis Sanchez, signed from Inter Milan in August for £8.75M leads the way with four.

Alexandre Lacazette has two.

Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Odegaard and Nicolas Pepe all have one.

There has been no further transfer activity in terms of players coming in. 

Going out is another story:

Eddie Nketiah was sold to West Ham at the end of July for £7.25M.

Zak Swanson was sent on loan to Crewe for the season.

The likes of Hector Bellerin, Pablo Mari, Lucas Torreira, Konstantinos Mavropanos are all on long term loans away from the club. Matteo Guendouzi is also on loan, and isn't coming back. With a transfer agreed at the end of his loan period with Olympic Marseille.

While I'm not suggesting the players away from the club could have rescued the poor start to the season. The first thing that stands out after the poor results. Is just how young, and thin on the ground the squad appears. While Arsenal don't have any continental football this season. I'm still not sure its going to be good enough.

 

 

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Only three games in November, and with a two week gap between the first against West Ham, and the second against Newcastle due to the international break. I figured I could begin to introduce a tactical style of my own. It was a no brainer for me to go with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Limited striking options, exciting young wide players and a young talented presence in the centre of the pitch gave me reasons to be optimistic.

Off the pitch, FC Bayern and Real Madrid were both circling for Gabriel. And he wanted to go. Apparently I was holding back his career by not letting him play Champions league football. From my perspective, he could have Champions league football, just as soon as we qualified for the competition. He was going nowhere. 

Another player who was beginning to annoy me was Mohamed Elneny. He was behind Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey in the queue for my defensive midfielder slot. But he still felt he deserved a contract that better meshed with his ability. I didn't think much of his ability so I didn't even both holding a meeting with him to discuss it. Instead I transfer listed him the next day.

Because there is no money for me to do anything with the squad in January. Basically because I've had to juggle the finances around to bump up the wage bill! Thus anyone who even looks at me funny, and isn't putting in the required effort, will be moving closer to the door so I can begin the reshaping process.

Back on the pitch come the 20th of November and we go to St James Park. While the 5-0 home win against  West Ham in the first game was great. I didn't dare believe that whatever problems had plagued the club were simply gone that easily. So I sent the lads out with a very cautious, lets keep it safe and see what happens attitude. We managed to silence the home crowd, get into the game. And in the 16th minute we profited from a defensive mistake. A missed clearing header allowed Sanchez to ghost in at the back post and put us ahead. 

The game descends into something that really isn't worth watching. There are glimpses of potential from both teams. But a decisive pass is always just a little sloppy, or the understanding between the players just isn't there. 

No understanding is required when the ball breaks for Xhaka on the edge of the area following a corner. He smashes it on the half volley and it flies into the top right corner. A game and a half in, seven goals scored, zero conceded, crisis? What crisis.

I'm still going to walk on egg shells though. I might have been inclined to tell the players not to switch off and get complacent in the second period. But I figured the fragile atmosphere at the club could do with some praise. So they got a well done for their first half efforts. Before I quickly adapted the formation and mentality to basically park the bus in the second half.

Which had the desired effect. The periods of unwatchable play grew longer and longer. Which suited me fine with a two goal cushion. Newcastle had more of the ball, but were unable to get into even half decent positions to do anything with it. They began to commit more and more players to their attempts to break through. Which resulted in Lacazette, on for Sanchez in the final stages. Finding himself one on one with the Newcastle keeper with just a minute of normal time left to play. He sits the keeper down as he goes round him and finishes into the open net. 3-0 Ecstatic! 

Less so two minutes later, when a lazy ball to beyond the back post is steered goalward by Allan Saint - Maximin and our clean sheet is gone. The game ends 3-1 and while a second win in a row, away from home is good. Literally the whole team switching off before the final whistle because they felt the game was won, unacceptable.

If I needed anymore signs that this wasn't going to be an easy ride. They came in next game. At home against Brighton seven days later.

Whether the players were uneasy about playing in front of the home fans due to their poor performance so far this season. Or whether it was simply an example of just how badly they were playing as a team in general. But we were very very poor. Brighton were ahead after 28 minutes with their version of Granit Xhaka's goal from the Newcastle game. The part of Xhaka was played by Alexis Mac Allister and his thunderbolt went in the top left corner, not the right. But otherwise it was basically the same.

With their goal scored. Brighton's intentions became clear. Make the game as difficult and frustrating as they could for us. We had all of the ball, and none of the quality to do anything with it. Either a simple lack of ideas, or the inability to execute them. Which very quickly led to the frustration of players taking shots at goal that  were destined to be blocked, or go flying over the bar.

I shuffled the pack with substitutions and tried adjust the tactics to make us use every inch of the Emirates pitch. In an attempt to create the space needed to find a way through. But nothing. Then on 80 minutes a deep free kick is lumped into the box level with the back post. Emile Smith Rowe cushions the ball towards goal on the volley, with the inside of his right foot. It strikes a Brighton defender and deflects into the bottom corner of the net. Completely wrong footing their keeper, who looked odds on to simply catch it.

1-1 

Its better to be lucky than good it seems! 

An unbeaten month for my first as Arsenal manager. Hopefully the only way is up. But I remain unconvinced.

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After the relatively easy task of three games in November. Reality well and truly struck with seven fixtures in December.

Elneny went to Al-Ittihad for £2.2M on the ninth of the month. With him gone, the next player in my sights was Alexandre Lacazette. 30, big wages in relation to the rest of the squad, not performing at all. And developed a sports hernia which side lined him for at least six weeks. Transfer listed!

Crystal Palace away was the first game of December. Alexis Sanchez might not be the player he was during his first spell at Arsenal. But he certainly seems more interested than pretty much everyone else at the club. Four minutes into the game and he's on the scoresheet. Charging into the box in the fullbacks blind spot. Just to dart in front of him at the back post to head in from a pretty much unmissable angle.

Palace seems to have been expecting us to be more like our early season pushovers as they didn't seem to be able to get a foothold in the game. We were on top for the first 20 minutes, to the point where I began to fear we would rue not converting anymore of our chances. 

Just as the possession was starting to even out. Bukayo Saka doubled our advantage on 22 minutes. Cutting in from the right he got to the edge of the box and hit a low bobbling drive that beat the keeper to the far post and crashed into the net.

Fool you once shame on me, fool you twice, well that's your problem. Saka did pretty much exactly the same thing on 29 minutes. 3-0 up. 

Any momentum Palace had been attempting to muster was gone. I calmed the lads down, kept the ball till halftime and got them in the changing room. With a three goal cushion I removed Alexis. Figured I'd need him again soon, but pointless flogging him in the second half for no reason. I also wanted to see what Mika Biereth the 19 year old Danish striker they signed from Fulham. He finished the previous season as the top goal scorer in U18 Premier league south with 21 goals and 13 assists.

He scored his first senior Arsenal goal two minutes into the second half. Saka, having an absolutely blinder of a game, slipping him in behind for the striker to calmly stroke home to make it four.

We conceded twice in the last 15 minutes which made me a bit edgy. But 4-2 and a continuation to the unbeaten start kept my spirits up.

Three days later we were at Carrow Road to play Norwich. 

We didn't get out of the blocks anywhere near as well as the previous game. Pukki hit the post twice and we were fortunate to still be in the game by the time we actually started stringing passes together. 

Alexis was once again the difference maker. Rolling back the years with a trademark burst of pace which saw him explode into the corner of the box between the central defender and wing back. A rocket of a shot across the keeper saw us 1-0 with 33 minutes played. 

I thought that would be that. But in stoppage time at the end of the first half we had a free kick, middle of the pitch, just outside of the D. Of all the players I thought would step up. I didn't expect it to be Xhaka. But straight as a die. Under the wall as it jumped, clipped the inside of the right hand post and went in! 

2-0 at halftime, 2-0 at the end of the game. We kept it tight and closed down in the second half and didn't give them much of anything to work with. 

Think that is going to be our season. I don't have the strength in depth to keep going deep into games. Hopefully we can get into the habit of getting games done with in the first half, and manage them in the second.

A week later it was Frank Lampard's Everton at the Emirates. Seemed like an age ago we played a home game. And after the less than emphatic performance I can't say I was looking forward too it. 

I sent the lads out to attack, because I wanted them to get used to going after teams in the first half. Plus I wanted the crowd to see the intent and hopefully get behind the players. Everton did their level best to frustrate us. But our mentality enabled us to play the majority of the first half in their territory. Even if the clock was winding down and we had nothing to show for it. 

That was when they finally seemed to switch off. Nicolas Pepe tapped in from beyond the far post. After he  got on the end of a testing cross from Kieran Tierney. 1-0 up after 44 minutes played. 

That however left me in a bit of a pickle come halftime. A one goal advantage wasn't exactly what I had hoped for. But we had big games coming up at the back end of the month and I couldn't see Alexis being able to churn out too many high intensity 90 minutes back to back.

So I replaced him at halftime with Biereth. Well both me and the Dane were beaming from ear to ear at full time. The lad had netted twice, running us out as 3-0 winners. Three wins on the bounce, six games unbeaten! Youth was coming good at the Emirates.

Next up though.

Spurs in the Carabao Cup Quarter Final...

 

 

 

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Spurs at the toilet bowl stadium. This was exactly the sort of game I wanted my in form players fresh for. As while the board didn't see this competition as important at the beginning of the season. That was when they had their sights set considerably higher up the table.

While they still didn't consider it a priority. To me it was a golden opportunity to boost morale and get a reward for hopefully not much effort. (Plus I need to win four of them as part of the challenge.)

But, then we draw Spurs, and turn a low priority quarter final into a North London derby. Which once again changes the complexion of the fixture.

I was 15 in October 1997 when England went to Rome needing a point to qualify for the world cup. 90 minutes and a blood soaked Paul Ince later. And I felt like I'd lived through some kind of right of passage. Think it was the first time I experienced a football game that on one hand I couldn't tear my eyes away. But at the same time made me feel sick to the pit of my stomach until the final whistle sounded and the objective had been achieved.

Now don't get me wrong. Spurs vs Arsenal in December 2021 was no repeat of that classic night in Rome. But my feelings were the same. I very much doubted our chances. And if someone had offered me the lottery of penalties at kick off. I'd of jumped on it. Every minute of the game was a miniscule movement towards that goal. Its not like Spurs battered us. But I feared if we went behind, we didn't have the quality or guile to get ourselves back into the game.

Someone must have been looking out for us that day as it came down to penalties. That's if you think a penalty shoot out is in anyway doing someone a favour!

Pierre - Emile Hojbjerg is first up for Spurs. He looks confident, and he hits it well towards the bottom left corner. But Ramsdale gets a great launch, guesses the right way and gets his hands down to push it away!

Who else would I allow to take our first kick other than Alexis Sanchez? Sends the keeper the wrong way, bottom right corner. Advantage us.

Harry Winks is next for Spurs. At this point, with the pressure on I would have liked us to be kicking towards our supporters. But the 3,000 or so Arsenal fans are segregated somewhere near the halfway line. Either way, Winks scores to make it 1 - 1.

I stick with the South American connection. Gabriel Martinelli is our next taker. But he seems to rush his kick with a short run up. And once Lloris guesses the right way he has a save at an easy height for him. It remains 1 - 1

Dejan Kulusevski scores for Spurs and I must admit it feels like the tie is creeping away. We've been provided the required fortune to this point and haven't taken advantage of it. Now surely we will be punished. 2 - 1

Thankfully Albert Sambi Lokonga has no such thoughts. Run up from the edge of the box and slams it into the top right corner. 2 - 2

Lucas Moura is next. With one of those annoying stutter step run ups that try make the keeper blink first. Ramsdale hangs on but eventually leans too much one way and Moura strikes it after our keeper is already committed. The ball runs along the ground, and dribbles wide of the right hand post. Moura must have been watching Ramsdale more than the ball and mis queued it. 2 - 2

Mika Biereth. I only put the 19 year old Dane on the list because he looked the most pumped of the lot. I wonder if that still holds true when he has a chance to give us the advantage late on in proceedings. He hits it hard, looping up to the top left hand corner. Lloris is going that way but the ball is too well struck and enters the net above his outstretched hand. 3 - 2.

Emerson Royal is taking Spurs last penalty. He seems in a rush but committed at the same time. He scores, guess he wanted the whole thing over with before he could change his mind. 3 - 3

So it comes down to this. Nuno Tavares is our final taker. Or at least I hope he is. Score this and we go through. Miss and we go to sudden death. The amount of noise that assails him is immense as the Spurs fans try support their team in the only way remaining to them. He begins his run up and hits it. The ball starts off going right, but lazily curls back towards the middle of the goal. The height is dead on central as well. If Lloris just stands there it probably hits him, nevermind him having to catch it. But the Spurs keeper doesn't stand still. He's diving to his right, he frantically attempts to get a trailing leg up, extend his toes beyond their physical capability. But to no avail. The balls in the net and we are into the semi final! 

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If the 0 - 0 draw against Spurs in the Carabao was some form of epic battle of wills where we endured to come out victorious.

Then the 0 - 0 draw at home against Man Utd three days later. Was just horrible. From our point of view it was an examination in exhaustion. The only criteria that went into picking the starting XI was which players were the least likely to come off the pitch injured after 90 minutes.

From Man Utd's perspective, they just didn't seem to want it enough. Either they thought they would roll us over without effort. Or were suffering from their own later December congestion. As they had both ample possession and opportunity to take all of the spoils back north. But I don't remember Ramsdale having a single difficult save to make.

The game away against Aston Villa on Boxing day was the complete opposite. Perhaps the players were just full of festive energy. More likely it had something to do with the biggest gap between fixtures in the whole month. Thomas Partey set the tone just a minute into the game. Having sweetly struck a knockdown on the edge of the Villa box. Somehow it smuggled through the packed penalty area and deposited itself in the bottom corner. 1 - 0.

The players seemed unsatisfied with such a fast start. As they quickly pressed the ball away from the home side from the resulting restart. Miguel Azeez our 19 year old English academy prospect, making his debut. Wasted no time in wanting to make an impression. He marauding forward from midfield. Only a scything tackle on the edge of the box from Ezri Konsa was able to bring an end to his run. 

Up step Martin Odegaard, a whipped, curling free kick that only ever looked destined for the top corner. The only question was whether Villa keeper and ex Gunner Emiliano Martinez could prevent it from going in. The answer was no 2 - 0 with only two minutes played!

Villa were completely shell shocked. And for the time being, it seemed we were happy with the start we had made. The game settled down.

Azeez and Odegaard combined again with just over five minutes left in the first half. The former slipping a delicious through ball into the area for the latter to get onto. The ball was perfectly weighted, Odegaard was always favourite to get too it first. But it was just at a distance that tempted Martinez to come and get it. The keepers situation was compounded by not wanting to give away an penalty. His indecision as to how committed he could be in coming for the ball. Left him off balance. Allowing Odegaard to smoothly round him and slot into an empty net. 3 - 0 38 minutes played.

Now I'll never have a bad word to say about my team scoring a goal. However, Villa had been trudging along towards halftime showing nothing. Now, having gone a third goal down. Some spark of indignant pride had been rekindled. And they came at us in the remaining seven minutes like they had a point to prove. With the added three minutes of stoppage time, and our comfortable three goal cushion mentality. Ollie Watkins managed to sneak in from a corner and head in a rather soft goal for the home side. 3 - 1 45+3

The second half was a completely different beast. As is my way with the current squad. I dialled back our intensity and focused on controlling and protecting the lead our first half efforts had afforded us. I must admit I didn't expect Villa to be as up for the second half as they were, based on the quality of their first period showing. They came out and absolutely hammered us. In complete contrast to the Man Utd game, where we were never really in any threat. This game we needed every ounce of luck we could muster. Watkins had the ball in the net just three minutes into the second period. But was chalked off for the slimmest of offsides curtesy of VAR. 

Villa would not be dissuaded, hitting the woodwork a total of three times during the second half. We battled hard, for every attempt they got on target, we foiled at least two or three more. Finally though a crack in the dam appeared. Who else but Watkins peeling off the back of Gabriel's shoulder to score on the half volley. 3 - 2 with 78 minutes played.

Strangely the goal seemed to take some of the urgency out of the Villa attack. Whether they felt it was just a matter of time now before they got back on terms. The problem being, they ran out of time. We somehow survived without conceding in those final 12 minutes and came home with all three points.

Which brings us to the last game of the year. And at the time, possibly the most complete performance under my fledgling management. We entertained Burnley at the Emirates on the 28th of December. Miguel Azeez's performance in his debut earned him a first home start. Once again he didn't disappoint. On 14 minutes he appeared in the area to stroke home a cut back from Nuno Tavares to put us in the lead. 

Joel Ideho, our 18 year old Dutch winger doubled our advantage on 25 minutes. Cutting inside from the right and thundering a drive across the Burnley keeper to silence the last vestiges of the visiting supporters defiance.

But we weren't finished there. Azeez, bossing the game just behind Biereth at the head of the formation. Collected the ball in a pocket of space just outside the D of the Burnley area. Chesting the ball down, he opened his body up to create space. Before hitting it on the volley with his right foot. Curling wickedly it struck the underside of the bar in the top right corner and dropped into the net. Azeez would go on loan to Derby on deadline day of the January window. Those two goals his only tally for the club to date. But that goal, was the fans pick for goal of the season come the end of the 2021 - 22 campaign. 

What made the performance probably the best so far. Wasn't just the fact we had a three goal advantage at half time. But that we still had it come full time. I pulled the plug for the second period. Instructing the players to keep the ball, play out the half, save the legs and be ready to go again in the new year. Burnley couldn't lay a glove on us. Fantastic!  

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January, and the clear out continues. 

Lacazette has been in contract talks with Lille for most of December. Finally on the opening day of the transfer window a deal is struck. £20m, which I really don't think is too shabby for an injured 30 year old.

Cedric follows on the eighth of January. £8.75m to Mexican side Tigres. He simply wasn't good enough to be in my plans. And I needed both the money and the wiggle room in the wages to make some changes.

The rest of the January departees are all loans:

Kido Taylor - Hart > Middlesbrough

Omar Rekik > West Brom

Omari Hutchinson > Jeonbuk

Charlie Patino > Hull

Miguerl Azeez > Derby

Ben Cottrell > Crystal Palace

Jordi Osei - Tutu > Bristol City

 

The sales allow me to bring in three players, two permanent and one on loan. 

Franck Kessie is a player I've had my eye on over multiple saves. But as I'm usually playing as Chelsea, by the time I'm in the market to replace Kante. He has been snapped up. He comes to us from AC Milan, for £20.5m, potentially rising to £22 with addons. He will hopefully provide a younger, better version of Granit Xhaka.

Sticking to Italy, and indeed Milan. I pay £3m for Ivan Perisic from Inter. He was available for signing at the end of the season due to him not being willing to renew his contract. But there was plenty of interest for him. Less for paying money to sign him. My threadbare attack needed some bolstering. Especially down the left where Emile Smith - Rowe is both playing wonderfully, and is exhausted all the time. 

Finally, a bit of a panic signing. Liam Delap comes to us on loan from Man City. Just as I again worry about the depth of cover up front over the back half of the season. Plus, as much as Mika Biereth has been wonderful up until now. He is still young and as such not a guarantee to perform every time I call his name.

Happy with the performance in the first transfer window. Hoping to go from strength to strength as I begin to put my own stamp on the squad  

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