#IBWM100 on Football Manager – Season Three with Ajax

Borussia Dortmund and Germany midfielder Julian Weigl

 
This is the third instalment of my attempts to sign only players from the In Bed with Maradona 100 during a game of Football Manager – the all-knowing, all-powerful football simulation.

The first two posts in this #IBWM100 on Football Manager series detailing how 2015/16 and then 2016/17 went can be found by clicking on those links.

If you haven’t read either of those – feel free to go back and catch up. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

Right, ready? Lovely. Let’s carry on. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the idea behind this is rather simple. The only first team additions I am allowed to make must come from the #IBWM100 for 2016 (technically 98 as Ecuador’s José Angulo and Japan’s Takahiro Sekine are not in the database I am using) or the virtual youth academy at my club; and my aim is to win the UEFA Champions League.

Starting off with Ajax thanks to their being three #IBWM100 players in their current, real-life squad we are two seasons into the experiment and things are ticking along nicely. In truth I find myself invested in the Dutch club and don’t expect to go anywhere else unless some of the #IBWM100 start retiring (assuming I last that long). I’ve had 17 of the current list (plus an uncountable number of #IBWM100 alumni) through the squad so far and during 2017/18 I expected that number to rise above 20.

In 2015/16 we finished second in the league and won the Dutch Cup. In 2016/17 the players romped to the league title, losing only once but went out early in the cup. Unfortunately in both seasons, we finished rock bottom of our Champions League group with no wins to our name – and as I prepared the players for the season I wanted success in Europe to be the main focus, especially during the first half of the campaign.

Chelsea and Denmark defender Andreas Christensen, pictured on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach

 
The summer was busy, although thankfully we didn’t need to qualify for the Champions League group stage which allowed the pre-season training to be easier than it had been previously. Annoyingly PSV fell to Besiktas in their qualifying tie and ended up in the Europa League, which on the face of it doesn’t help the league’s coefficient at all.

In amongst Manchester City manager David Moyes *insert suitable emoji here* making fruitless enquiries about Jonny we said goodbye to four first-team players (and a few fringe players). Viktor Fischer had his minimum release clause (£10.75 million) triggered by Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United took Anwar El Ghazi off me for a deal that will eventually rise to around £8 million and Nemanja Gudelj headed for Frank De Boer’s Schalke 04. The fourth departure saw Jairo Riedewald head to Arsenal for £15 million, in what appeared like a good deal for us.

Fischer’s replacement was already part of the squad (Sebastián Driussi) while both El Ghazi and Gudelj were squad players so could be replaced by promoting youth from within or returning loanees. The only signing I needed to make was a centre-back to replace Riedewald. Having had Jonathan Tah for six months during 2016/17 and been impressed with the potential he showcased, we paid £10 million to bring him in on a permanent deal from Leverkusen.

Of course that wasn’t the only signing we made and three other #IBWM100 players were drafted into the club. Bartłomiej Drągowski returned on loan for another 12 months away from Barcelona. Phakamani Mahlambi joined on a free transfer from Bidvest Wits, didn’t look good enough for the Ajax first-team and was offered out on loan to a number of clubs. The final transfer saw Luka Jovic join from Valencia, having moved to Spain from Red Star Belgrade in 2015. The Serbian Falcao came in for £10 million with the hope that he’d rotate with Richairo Zivkovic in the main striking role, as well play in either wing position when needed.

While playing through my third season, I was watching the real-life Ajax play in the Eredivise against Vitesse and was struck by the vast difference in the two squads so I thought I’d try to tell the story of the season along with a breakdown of how my Ajax squad looked after the close of the 2017 summer transfer window.

AC Milan and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma

 
Goalkeepers: Bartlomiej Dragowski, Gianluigi Donnarumma

As the season kicked off I felt incredibly confident about the choices I had in goal. Bartlomiej Dragowski started the season as my number one and got the nod in the league whereas Gianluigi Donnarumma played cup games – both Dutch Cup and Champions League – as I tried to give experience to my own player rather than sticking solely with loanee Dragowski through the season.

However by the time 2018 arrived the positions had switched and Donnarumma was considered to be the better ‘keeper by all three goalkeeping coaches at the club. I allowed Bartlomiej to remain as the league goalkeeper until we had wrapped up the Eredivisie title and then gave Donnarumma a run of appearances to finish the season.

Right-backs: Ricardo van Rhijn
Left-backs: Jonny, Mitchell Dijks
Centre-backs: Andreas Christensen, Jonathan Tah, Almamy Toure, Deyovaisio Zeefuik

Ideally I’d have liked to start the season with eight defenders in the squad but with Almamy Toure and Jonny both able to play right-back and my preference to deploy a regular back four as often as possible; it made sense to let the fringe players spend the season on loan.

Ricardo van Rhijn and Jonny played as the two all-action full-backs with Andreas Christensen and Jonathan Tah in the centre. The group played the majority of games and laid a solid foundation for the team to build upon. As it was, the additional bodies weren’t missed with Almamy Toure and Deyovaisio Zeefuik doing fine jobs when called upon to slot into defence.

In fact Toure was so impressive that towards the end of the season, van Rhijn had a tough time holding on to his place in the side. Almamy was so good that he finished second in the Eredivisie Young Player of the Year voting; and probably did enough to convince me that we can part with Ricardo during the summer.

Bayer Leverkusen and Germany defender Jonathan Tah

 
Central midfielders: Julian Weigl, Kristoffer Ajer, Donny van de Beek, Markus Bay
Left wingers: Daley Sinkgraven, Srdjan Plavsic
Right wingers: Héctor Villalba, Moises Navarro
Number 10s: Davy Klaassen, Sebastián Driussi

This is the area that I considered the most as I prepared for my third season with Ajax. Having played a wide 4-2-3-1 that utilised a winger on the left and an inside forward on the right flank for the first two seasons, I toyed with the idea of changing up the positions of my front six to play more players in their favoured positions. Although listed up there next to left wing for example, Daley Sinkgraven prefers to play centrally and I figured 4-3-1-2 would allow me to get Weigl, Ajer and van de Beek on the pitch at the same time.

The strength of the side had previously come from the now departed Viktor Fischer (left-wing), Lasse Schone (number 10) and Davy Klaassen (still at the club to be fair) and with the addition of Andrija Zivkovic, the wider system worked. The emergence of the central players forced my hand and I instructed the side to work on the new system during the summer.

Following some success with 4-3-1-2 in the Eredivise, it was deployed in our first Champions League game with the hope that a strong spine would sort us out. It didn’t work. Borussia Dortmund pulled us apart and we were lucky to leave Germany with just a 0-2 defeat.

I decided to revert back to type for the second match, and go after games – much like we do in the league – rather than waiting for our European opponents to simply pick us apart. After going 0-2 down against Manchester United in our second game, it appeared to be a terrible decision. I was ready to throw in the towel and look towards damage limitation when Kristoffer Ajer to broke forward in the 45th minute and poked home a flick-on. The goal seemed to set off something in my players, it made my team-talk much easier and spurred the team on. They dominated the second half and were unlucky to only a secure a 2-2 draw. We followed that up by ripping Lazio apart – winning 4-1 at home – and it felt like I was finally onto something.

Sadly it did not last and though we looked decent at home, and pushed Manchester United in both games (two 2-2 draws) we lost the reverse fixture to Lazio and were then schooled again by Dortmund. Though we’d picked up five points, the Group Stage finished with another fourth place finish for Ajax.

It didn’t help that Julian Weigl got sent off in both games against his former club.

Excitingly, it was around the time of the fourth group game (as we battled Lazio) that we agreed to bring in the transfer listed Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for £6 million. A natural on the right wing, numerous scout reports indicated that he would be a huge upgrade on our main right winger Héctor Villalba. Bernardeschi had spent two seasons struggling for games in Serie A and would have probably ticked all the boxes as a Moneyball signing, being young, cheap and undervalued due to his lack of action.

Bernardeschi’s arrival in January was followed by Donny van de Beek departing for Juventus (they triggered his £14.5 million release clause) and suddenly balance was once again returned to the squad. For good measure and because there was money burning a hole in my transfer fund pocket, we signed Víctor Camarasa on loan to be Julian Weigl’s back-up in midfield.

Sinkgraven’s form on the left wing – I imagined a lot of his performances as though he were a left-footed David Beckham, using the overlaps from Jonny to create space for delightful crosses – saw him finish the season as our best creator with 17 assists and a regular in the Netherlands squad.

River Plate and Argentina midfielder Sebastián Driussi tussles with a fan

 
Strikers: Richairo Zivkovic, Luka Jovic

When Arkadiusz Milik departed the club, the first team squad was left without a leading, natural striker and I had to recall Richairo Zivkovic from loan to lead the line. I had got by with one striker and the idea that I’d drop others into the role when Milik needed a rest. Expecting my luck to run out, Luka Jovic came in to be Zivkovic’s back-up and general competition.

As it turned out, both men had periods on the sidelines so it worked out really well having two natural forwards in the squad. Zivkovic finished the season with 23 goals to his name. His 16 goals in the league was second only to FC Utrechet’s Robert Beric; who bagged 18. Pleasingly both forwards were in the top five for minutes per goal across the Eredivisie.

Moises Navarro, signed by Director of Football Marc Overmars in 2017 for the youth team (part of his remit allowed him to bring in exciting teenagers to the academy) played a few games up front in early rounds of the Dutch Cup and he ended up as our top scorer in the competition as we completed a domestic treble (Eredivise, Dutch Cup, Super Cup).

Fiorentina and Italy midfielder Federico Bernardeschi

 
There was never a title race for the league. We were 12 points clear of Heerenveen by Christmas and wrapped up the title with seven rounds of fixtures to go. We were comfortably better than every other team in the league, and finished the season with the meanest defence and the most goals.

Bartlomiej Dragowski won Goalkeeper of the Year thanks in part to PSV’s decision to sell Jeroen Zoet to Leicester City. Andre Onana, who departed for FC Groningen in the summer, finished second to the Polish goalkeeper. As previously mentioned, Almamy Toure finished second in the Young Player of the Year voting.

Zinedine Zidane (seriously) was named Manager of the Year after doing a sterling job with Heerenveen and guiding them to second in the league.

Despite our Champions League woes, a run by PSV (who finished the league in ninth) to the quarter-finals of the Europa League and AZ’s appearance in the first knock-out round of the same competition lifted the Eredivisie back to 11th in the UEFA coefficient rankings. That rise guaranteed a place in the Champions League group stages for next season’s league winner (season four – 2018/19) so something to look forward to.

As for my own club ambitions, the plan for 2018/19 is to secure a third straight league title and finish at least third in whatever Champions League group we qualify for. *fingers crossed*

The 2018 World Cup was won by Spain with Hector Bellerin, a member of the #IBWM100, named as the best player at the competition. Bernandro Silva, another #IBWM100-ite, finished with five assists, more than anyone else in the competition. The Netherlands didn’t qualify whereas England finished fourth after losing 3-4 to Portugal in the third place play-off.

Having both gone out in the group stages, my pre-season kicked off with the officials of both France and Italy knocking on my door.

Srdjan Plavsic 9(18) appearances, one goal, four assists, one yellow card, 7.11 average rating

Srdjan played really well when he had the chance but thanks to the form of others, he struggled to get a regular spot in the team. Capable of playing in four different midfield positions, his versatility saw him used more and more as a sub to see out a number of games; although his goal and assist return from limited game time was still pleasing.

Kristoffer Ajer 24(10) apps, two gls, two assts, one player of the match, five yellows, 7.25 avg

Didn’t turn 20 until April 2018 but already an important part of the midfield. Donny van de Beek was Julian Weigl’s usual partner through the first half of the season but when he left for Juventus, Ajer stepped in and is now regarded by the coaching to be the very best midfielder at the club. I need to be careful to not play him too much in the coming season.

Goran Karačić

Unfortunately Goran spent another year not getting any competitive action and toiling in the Jong Ajax squad. The positive sign appears to be the fact that he has improved as a goalkeeper thanks to our coaches and should find a loan club next season, which will put him in the shop window and/or earn the job of reserve ‘keeper for the Ajax first team.

Bartłomiej Drągowski 28 apps, 19 goals conceded, 17 clean sheets, 6.85 avg

Had a decent season racking up 17 clean sheets in just 28 appearances and earning the Goalkeeper of the Year award; although by the end of the season he was clearly the number two stopper at the club. Bartłomiej broke into the Poland national team by the end of the season but I still don’t expect him to play much for Barcelona next season. If his wages stay low (£3,600) I might see if we can have him back for a third season.

Almamy Touré 19(2) apps, two gls, four assts, two pom, two yellows, one red card, 7.53 avg

Almamy really showed why he is so highly regarded by the coaches, and by the end of the season he was a regular in the team. He looks like a terrific player all of a sudden and the £5 million investment is starting to pay off. The Mali international will probably miss a chunk of 2018/19 due to the Africa Cup of Nations, so we’ll still need decent back-up.

Héctor Villalba 32(6) apps, 16 gls, seven assts, six pom, one yellow, 7.52 avg

Héctor’s natural position isn’t as an inside forward playing on the right wing, but he still had a tremendous season in that role. He started the league season by scoring six times in his first five games and finished off with a very impressive 16 goals in total. His form didn’t really warrant signing a replacement but Bernardeschi just oozes potential.

Jonny 37(1) apps, two goals, six assts, two pom, nine yellows, one red, 7.44 avg

Another top notch season from the Spanish full-back meant I had to commit to selling Mitchell Dijks due to a lack of opportunities. Jonny is a wonderful defender and pretty brilliant going forward, Much of his hard-running opened up space for Daley Sinkgraven to wrap his left foot around some pinpoint crosses. I assume he’ll be a target for plenty of European clubs during the summer window.

Andreas Christensen 39 apps, two goals, two yellows, 7.08 avg

A tall, commanding rock in the middle of the Ajax defence, Andreas Christensen had a fine season and finished with an average rating of 7.08. I probably should have rotated him more as I am conscious of playing young players too much in their early career but he was such a consistent performer that there was rarely any need or desire to move him.

Julian Weigl 35(1) apps, one gl, two assts, 14 yellows, three reds, 7.15 avg

As the only defensive minded midfielder in the Ajax system, I put a fair amount of pressure on the Deep Lying Playmaker to control things. That probably explains why Julian Weigl has finished the season with an eye-watering 14 yellow cards and three red cards (two of those coming in games against his former club, Dortmund) and yet I’m not all that saddened by his displays. Weigl is a consistently strong performer and already way too good for the Eredivisie. I can only hope we start to challenge in the Champions League so I can dig my heals in to keep him.

Sebastián Driussi 31(2) apps, seven gls, 11 assts, five pom, 7.48 avg

Quickly becoming my favourite player in this Ajax team (although I am doing my best not to show any emotion in case they leave me) Sebastián Driussi had an outstanding season. It stuttered to a finish thanks to a couple of muscle injuries at the tail end of the season. Having started as the left-winger in the team, I moved him centrally to the number 10 position when Davy Klaassen needed a breather and Driussi made the position his own. Klaassen was forced into a deeper role (or a place on the bench) as the Argentinian excelled as the heart of the team. Having signed him for just £6 million 18 months ago, I feel rather pleased with myself.

Jonathan Tah 44(1) apps, three goals, four assts, two pom, four yellows, 7.35 avg

When we had Jairo Riedewald in defence, I didn’t use Jonathan Tah all that much when we had him on loan. With Jairo departed, Tah got a run in the team and then bedded in. Finishing with a 7.35 average rating across 45 appearances in all competitions is exactly what I’m after from a central defender. I hope Jonathan and Andreas can play an important role in whatever happens during season four.

Gianluigi Donnarumma 19 apps, 20 gls con, seven cln, 6.84 avg

Gianluigi’s signing wasn’t really part of a grand plan but done because I had money that I expected the board to take away from me and needed a permanent goalkeeper to ensure I wasn’t left in the lurch without decent alternatives. Right now we are sitting pretty with Donnarumma as our number one and sure to improve greatly over the next two years. He dropped in and out of the team all season – and had a busy time in the Champions League – but should be better with a regular spot during 2018/19.

Phakamani Mahlambi 10(11) apps, one asst, 6.69 avg (on loan at NEC)

Phakamani was signed on a free transfer and is a player that will eventually be able to do a job in the Ajax team. For now, he is best to spend as much of his time playing football with other Eredivisie teams so he can fulfill his potential as soon as possible. He did pretty well on loan at NEC and should get plenty of offers this summer to spend another year elsewhere.

Luka Jovic 16(13) apps, 12 gls, three assts, two pom, 7.04 avg

The week after Jovic joined, my main striker went down with an injury (coincidence?) and he actually started the season as my main striking option. He did pretty well and scored five times in his first seven games which was pretty pleasing. Eventually, Richairo Zivkovic fought his way back into the first team and Luka – only a teenager when the season started – played the back-up role. 12 goals from approximately 20 full 90s of football is a pleasing return.

Federico Bernardeschi 11(5) apps, five gls, one asst, one pom, one yellow, 7.16 avg

I don’t want to get carried away but I believe there are six players currently in my squad that should they remain with Ajax for the next two or three seasons, I’ll be able to become a force in the Champions League. Federico Bernardeschi is one of those players. Played in all of our final 16 league games as we strolled to the title and got used to his surroundings with some strong performances. Once he gets the hang of the team and the system, he’ll be able to win matches on his own.

Víctor Camarasa 2(3) apps, 6.95 avg

I didn’t need him but he didn’t cost a lot in wages. He actually won his first Spain cap while on loan at Ajax and then joked it was easier to get in the Spanish team than that of the Dutch champions. Given that Spain won the 2018 World Cup; I’m rather happy with that. I hope to have him on the books again soon; but happy to wait until he is actually needed in the side.

5 Comments

  • Tom
    January 29, 2016 - 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Really enjoying this series. Out of interest, what roles and duties do you have your central midfielders playing? I’m assuming one deep lying playmaker, but how about the other?

    • Ryan Keaney
      February 1, 2016 - 9:56 am | Permalink

      Hi Tom – thanks for reading.
      My two central midfielders are usually:
      Deep Lying Playmaker – Defend
      Advanced Playmaker – Support
      …with the number 10 usually Shadow Striker – Attack

      Against bigger teams/rivals I’ve sometimes used to add a little steel in midfield
      Deep Lying Playmaker – Defend
      Central Midfielder – Support
      no.10: Advanced Playmaker – Support

  • February 2, 2016 - 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Enjoying this Ryan.
    Actually went and got FM2016 last week and want to try a similar thing with Lille and Le50 – but only just got started.
    Couple of questions. Are you playing the full version? Game is so detailed since I used to play it, and I’m feeling a bit bogged down with all the options.
    How hands on are you? Any help with settings etc to maybe speed it up would be great.
    Ta.

    • Ryan Keaney
      February 2, 2016 - 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Cheers Andrew – I’m pleased to inspire others.
      Yeah – I’m playing the full version but I think I’ve handed a lot of jobs to the Director of Football etc. In Staff -> Responsibilities, I’ve handed over most of the training, contract and transfer stuff to the DoF, Head of Youth and Assistant Manager.
      All I need to worry about it between games is tweaking the tactics, press conferences and making some fringe players available for the reserves.
      Twice a season I try to do a quick check to see if I can upgrade who my DoF, Head of Youth and Assistant Manager are, as well.

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