#IBWM100 on Football Manager – Season One with Ajax

Ajax’s leading striker Arkadiusz Milik

 
In the last two years blogging and writing about Football Manager has become almost as frequent and popular as writing about actual football. The game – previously the actual reason so many teenage boys spent an ungodly sum of hours alone in their bedrooms (and not good old-fashioned pornography) – has taken on a life of its own and entered the mainstream with its use on Sky Sports News and the BBC Sport Deadline Day blog. It has a devoted section on the website for the Mirror newspaper as well as hundreds (more likely thousands) of devoted fan blogs.

As I pick up the game for the first time in four years (the last version I purchased was FM2012 although on one cold winter night I did install the FM2015 demo before deleting it in a fit of frustration some hours later), I’m encouraged to take you along for the ride. Some of the writing around this will be dry, so let me start by saying sorry for that. However given the subject matter is all about me talking you through how well/poorly things went on a computer game and that we’re already 215 words in, I suspect you have made your peace with that.

The plan is really rather simple. Using only the #IBWM100 and the youth academy system of my virtual football team, I am going to attempt to win the UEFA Champions League and every other trophy I can get my hands on.

Produced annually, the #IBWM100 is In Bed With Maradona’s list of the most exciting young players in world football. Since the closure of Spanish sports weekly magazine Don Balón in 2011, IBWM have picked up the baton and produced lists for the last five years; going back after 12 months to review how each player has progressed before releasing a new group into the world. You can find the details of those lists here (2011-2014 and 2015).

The 100 for 2016 was released on Wednesday 23rd December 2015 and accounts for the only players I am allowed to sign during the game (except for any new youth recruits that our brought into the club).

As for where to begin the crusade; I turned to Pete Sharland’s list of 10 Football Manager 2016 Teams to Try. My choice became obvious as I reached the half-way point in the countdown. Ajax jumped out at me as the perfect first team to harness burgeoning talent and a youth system eager to produce talent with the quality to play in the first team. The squad is littered with alumni from previous #IBWM100 lists – such as Viktor Fischer, Richairo Zivkovic, Anwar El Ghazi and Ricardo van Rhijn – as well as three members of the 2016 group – Jairo Riedewald, Riechedly Bazoer and Arkadiusz Milik.

Hard-working midfielder Riechedly Bazoer

 
The club are also shackled with the very immediate need to reclaim the Eredivisie title from PSV Eindhoven so any plan I might have had to stockpile talent and simply wait for them to blossom into a dominating force will need to be balanced off with actual success on the football pitch.

Assisted by a database that ensured 98 of the 100 players are available to me – Ecuador’s José Angulo and Japan’s Takahiro Sekine will not be part of this story – I kicked things off with an incredibly thrilling study of every player in the reckoning for the Ajax first team with my focus on just how high their ceiling for development might be and when I might need to replace them with someone from the list. This was followed by some work to improve the coaching, physio and scouting teams; the addition of Germany legend Gerd Muller to the coaching staff was particularly pleasing.

Preparation for the season followed and as I planned, I tried to ensure I had two players earmarked for every position with others able to slot in where necessary. Arkadiusz Milik stood out as the main centre forward in the squad and started 2015/16 as the only one of the #IBWM100 trio as a member of my so-called “Best XI”. Jairo Riedewald went down as an understudy to Joël Veltman and Johnny Heitinga in the centre of defence while Riechedly Bazoer was paired with Nemanja Gudelj as the two destroyers set to partner club captain Davy Klaassen in my midfield pivot.

The desire for competent depth on each position lead to my first #IBWM100 purchase. To compete with Anwar El Ghazi on the right wing of the attacking midfield three, I paid the princely sum of £3.1 million and £12,000 per week in wages for Andrija Zivkovic from Partizan. In real-life, the Serbian has been linked with following in Lazar Markovic’s footsteps and swapping Partizan for Benfica but on here, he’ll interchange with El Ghazi as the secondary goal scorer in my team.

New signing Andrija Zivkovic

 
The team worked on two systems during pre-season – a 4-2-3-1 for domestic domination and a counter-attacking 4-3-3 for the bigger (and much better) European opponents that I hoped to face. Both were developed to get the most from my three main players – midfield general Davy Klaassen, playmaker Lasse Schone and roaring full-back Richardo van Rhijn – with the main change in the European tactic seeing the number 10 (Schone) dropping into midfield and the ball-winning midfielder (Gudelj) slotting in as a defensive shield.

The summer was also spent rebuffing the advances of teams with plenty of money. All three of my stars as well as central defender Joël Veltman were transfer targets but I managed to convince all four to stay thanks to a mixture of new contracts (Veltman) and promises to eventually let them move on (Klaassen and van Rhijn). Klaassen and Veltman were immediate concerns as they were both far and away the best players in their positions at the club. Richardo van Rhijn and Lasse Schone had ready-made replacements in the shape of Kenny Tete and Viktor Fishcer but I figured another year of development time wouldn’t hurt either.

The season kicked off with the prospect of two qualifying rounds to reach the Champions League group stages. A 2-1 aggregate win got rid of Young Boys before Andrija Zivkovic took centre stage in the first leg of the clash with Fenerbahce. After going 1-0 down, he delivered two free-kicks that resulted in two goals (an own goal by Nani and a tap-in for Bazoer) before lobbing the ‘keeper from the halfway line in the 89th minute to give us a 1-3 cushion for the return leg at home. A 1-1 draw at the Amsterdam ArenA was enough to secure a place in Group B along with Chelsea, Lyon and Wolfsburg.

We finished bottom of the group with only one point from the six games. The games really showed just how much things will need to improve if we are to compete with the very best in Europe. On the plus side, safe passage in the Dutch Cup was navigated and we got to the halfway point in the league season sitting in second place, trailing PSV by five points. Milik lead the league for goals with 12, Van Rhijn (seven) and Zivkovic (six) were in the top five for assists and Jasper Cillessen’s nine clean sheets left him just one behind PSV’s Jeroen Zoet. Solid.

Defensive rock Jairo Riedewald

 
It was around this stage that I got backed into a corner by both Davy Klaassen and Lasse Schone about their futures. I had to agree to let both move on within a year and subsequently needed to do work to pin down their replacements. As mentioned before I felt happy with Viktor Fischer as an eventual 10 so then moved to replace Klaassen in midfield with teenager Kristoffer Ajer. The Norwegian set me back £1 million as I agreed a deal for him to join at the end of the season and he may go for approximately the same in real-life if speculation of interest from Celtic, Liverpool and AS Roma is to be believed.

Then the January window opened and all hell seemed to break loose within the squad. I rejected a couple of low-ball offers from around Europe for Joël Veltman. Instead of trusting me to look for a decent price for our best defender, the rest of the squad took Joël’s side and basically downed tools until I let him go. Donny van de Beek, a talented young midfielder that I used for a Dutch Cup tie and Champions League match in December, then threw his toys out of the pram after I rebuffed the advances of Real Madrid. Given that I had started the month by letting centre-back Johnny Heitinga and defensive midfielder Thulani Serero go reasonably cheaply I didn’t want to lose either. I allowed Veltman to go to Sevilla for around £3 million; but we’d struggled through the restart of the league in that time and given up points to PSV.

Happy that I still had the bodies to look after the defence, the only signing we made in January was midfielder Srdjan Plavsic. Plavsic is an attacking midfielder capable of playing wide-left on in behind the striker, so should allow me to play Fischer centrally more in the future.

I brought him in for £1 million with the thinking that he could used to the club before making an impact next season. Plavsic’s recruitment opened the door for both Abdeihak Nouri and Vaclac Cerny to depart; for Arsenal and Manchester City respectively. We negotiated buy-back clauses into their deals as both have long-term potential and *technically* count as products of the Ajax youth system.

The closure of the window calmed things down and we got back to winning ways in the league. Van de Beek quickly realised he belonged at Ajax and the rest of the group moved on from losing our best central defender. Unfortunately we were unable to make up enough points on PSV to make the league interesting. They won 13 of their last 16 games including a 0-0 draw with us, and stayed clear. On the plus side we did batter them 2-0 in the Dutch Cup semi-final (trust me, we battered them) and went on to lift the trophy with a 3-0 win over Feyenoord in the final. Rather pleasingly we won the Cup without conceding a goal in any of our six matches.

All-in-all; a pretty pleasing first year in management with a trophy convincing the board to stick with me and a second place finish in the Eredivisie ensuring another go at the Champions League. Ricardo van Rhijn was rightfully named as our Player of the Season with Milik as our Top Goalscorer. Bazoer was the only one of the original #IBWM100 three not to be part of the Best XI but his versatility probably worked against him in that regard.


Jairo Riedewald 36 appearances, two goals, one assist, four yellow cards, 7.06 average rating

Jairo had a pleasing season establishing himself as Veltman’s partner in the centre of defence before taking on the role as the leader at the heart of the defence when Veltman left for Sevilla. With the success of my two left-backs meaning he can focus on playing in the middle, 2016/17 should be a chance for him to grow as a central defender.

Riechedly Bazoer 35(1) apps, three gls, one ass, three player of the match awards, eight yellows, 7.15 avg

Nemanja Gudelj was supposed to be the guy keeping Bazoer out of my midfield when the season started. However Gudelj promptly got himself sent off three times in the opening 12 games and that offered Bazoer the chance to take on the role. He rather happily took it and was doing a decent job until Veltman’s departure meant he was better deployed in defence. Bazoer and Riedewald could be a foundation that I build this team around; assuming I can ward off transfer interest.

Arkadiusz Milik 37(8) apps, 28 gls, seven ass, three pom, 7.22 avg

My leading striker; Arkadiusz did a fine job throughout the year scoring 25 times in 32 league appearances. He was pipped to the top scorer crown on account of Dirk Kuyt (also 25 goals) having played fewer minutes than the young Polish forward. One worry is his lack of goals during our European adventure. Admittedly we finished bottom of the group but it would have been to see him bag a couple of consolation goals along the way.

Andrija Zivkovic 36(6) apps, eight gls, 10 ass, one pom, one yellow, 7.15 avg

A really pleasing addition to the squad Zivkovic made an almost instant impact in the qualifying rounds for the Champions League, and then ensured the right wing position was his for the season. Linked up brilliantly with the two right-backs that played behind him and should be capable of taking the league by storm next season.

Srdjan Plavsic 3(9) apps, one gl, one yellow, 6.77 avg

Signed in January to add another body to the squad but ultimately with 2016/17 in mind. He got a few chances to impress and his one goal was a 90th minute winner against Vitesse that threatened to turn the Eredivisie into a title race. Can play competently in a number of positions so will certainly get a regular chance.

4 Comments

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  • Dr T
    January 20, 2016 - 11:02 am | Permalink

    Great piece , any advise for an IBWM 100 CB ??

    • Ryan Keaney
      January 21, 2016 - 9:58 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment.

      A CB from the current crop? The obvious answer is John Stones (if you have the money) but as you drop the levels of club finances I quite like Andreas Christensen (massive potential) as the next step down, Riechedly Bazoer (probably not a natural centre-back) if you can get him away from Ajax or Matt Miazga (has a lower ceiling than the others but may still cost a bit) from New York.

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