#IBWM100 on Football Manager – Season Two with Ajax

Monaco and Mali defender Almamy Touré

It is highly likely that you did not read part one of this series so feel free to go check it out before trying to battle on with season two. Some of what follows may not make sense without it although I suspect you will probably do just fine.

The plan is really rather simple. Using only the #IBWM100 for 2016 and whatever pieces of football gold that the virtual youth academy of my football team creates, I am going to do my absolute utmost to win the UEFA Champions League on Football Manager 2016, as well as every other trophy that springs up along the way.

Produced every December, the #IBWM100 is In Bed With Maradona’s breakdown of the most exciting young footballers in the world. IBWM have produced the list since 2011 following the closure of Spanish sports weekly magazine Don Balón.

The first season with Ajax went pretty well all things considered. The club finished the Eredivisie in second place, ensuring another crack at the Champions League and we also claimed a trophy – in the form of the Dutch Cup. I started off with three members of the #IBWM100 in my ranks – Jairo Riedewald, Riechedly Bazoer and Arkadiusz Milik – added two more – Andrija Zivkovic and Srdjan Plavsic – and agreed a deal for a sixth – Kristoffer Ajer – to join in time for the 2016/17 campaign.

Given the constant interest in Ajax’s players by teams with bottomless pockets in comparison to our relatively small Dutch coffers, I expected that number to grow and I wasn’t wrong. The 2016 Summer Transfer Window was fairly busy.

Let’s start with the departures.

Roma kicked things off with a £10 million offer for Jasper Cillessen. Though a blow to lose the Netherlands’ number one, I trusted in the high regard my coaches had for 20 year-old André Onana as well as the likelihood that I could sign one of the five #IBWM ‘keepers.

With two incredibly strong right-backs, I made my peace early in the summer that one would depart. I was surprised that it was Kenny Tete that attracted most interest but after Tottenham tabled an offer that amounted to £13.25 million, Tete was on his way and Ricardo van Rhijn was signing a new contract.

The third major name out the door was 30 year-old Lasse Schöne as he headed for Tony Pulis-less West Bromwich Albion for £2.5 million. The longer that 2015/16 had progressed the more I had used Schöne off the bench with Klaassen and Fischer sharing duties as the number 10 in the team. Following Lasse’s departure and the relegation of 35 year-old goalkeeper Diederik Boer to the Jong Ajax squad, the oldest player in my first team squad became 25 year-old Ricardo van Rhijn.

There were also a string of smaller sales with a number of fringe and youth players departing for new pastures. Amin Younes went to Hannover, Mike van der Hoorn went to Bournemouth, Lesley de Sa jetted off to Maritimo and Ruben Ligeon headed for Caen. If anyone of them looked particularly promising, I did my best to insert an agreed price for their return and sent them off with kind words on their final day. Just in case.

Real Madrid and Spain midfielder Marco Asensio

Now, the new new arrivals.

As well as promoting André Onana – a young Cameronian goalkeeper – from the youth team I managed to complete the signing of two #IBWM100 goalkeepers. Goran Karačić arrived for £300,000 from HŠK Zrinjski Mostar but after I secured the loan signing of Bartłomiej Drągowski, Goran was sent on loan to one of our affiliate clubs. I had originally tried to sign Drągowski permanently from Jagiellonia Białystok but he elected to choose Barcelona over Amsterdam. Unfortunately for him, within a week of touching down in Spain he realised that Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen were blocking his chances of featuring in that first team so he agreed that spending the year on loan in the Eredivisie made sense.

In defence we replaced Tete with the versatile Almamy Touré. The Mali international joined from Monaco for something close to £5 million (lots of appearance related clauses) to take the role of general understudy. A natural at both right-back and centre-back I figured he could fill in where needed through the first few months of the season.

As well as the signing of Kristoffer Ajer that was agreed last season, we brought in two more attacking minded players to help the team. Marco Asensio joined on loan from Real Madrid and basically walked into the first-team in whatever position he liked and Héctor Villalba jetted in from San Lorenzo for just £1.2 million after initially agreeing to join at the end of his contract in January 2017.

The final piece of business didn’t happen until the day that we confirmed our place in the group stage of the Champions League. Having beaten Fenerbahce in our opening qualifying round, we were disappointed to draw 2-2 at home with Basel in the first leg. My anxiety about qualifying were laid to rest in the first half of the return leg as took a 3-0 lead. Basel did score a consolation but we looked thoroughly assured as our seventh #IBWM100 signing of the summer watched on from the stands (I’m assuming he was there).

Jonny Castro Otto, better known as just Jonny, moved from Celta Vigo (where he remains in real-life) to Barcelona in August 2015 for £18.75 million. Capable of playing at both right-back and left-back, he failed in his mission of ousting either Jordi Alba or Dani Alves from their regular places and featured only twice in the league during 2015/16. Desperate to play football and on the transfer list, we brought him in for the slightly expensive but entirely reasonable £9 million. His arrival helped to improve one of our weakest areas rather dramatically (left-back) and also meant that Nick Viergever could be looked on as cover for his natural position, centre-back.

The signing also brought the total number of #IBWM100 recruits at the club to 12 and meant that with a little jiggery-pokery I could field an entirely #IBWM100 starting XI if I wanted to. As the transfer window closed and we celebrated beating PSV on penalties to win the Dutch Super Cup, I decided to not go out of my way to play the #IBWM100 XI although I make absolutely no promises.

Of course, I acted as my own worst enemy and quickly dashed those hopes by allowing Srdjan Plavsic to head out on loan to play regularly. With Fischer, Asensio, Zivkovic, Villalba’s early arrival and Lucas Andersen all capable of playing the same positions as him, I figured I could live without Srdjan for 12 months and he packed his bags for Elche in Spain.

San Lorenzo and Argentina forward Héctor Villalba

The league season started slowly and we had one point from our opening two games thanks to a 2-2 draw versus PSV and a 2-3 defeat away at FC Groningen. Viktor Fischer had been allowed extra-time off on account of Denmark reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016 (won by Italy 1-0 in the final versus Portugal. More importantly, Nicklas Bendtner was named in the Euro 2016 Dream Team – perhaps proving the Moneyball theory that no good can come from relying on major tournaments to find talent) and his return to the side sparked an upturn in fortunes. We won 12 and drew four of our remaining league fixtures in 2016, and by Christmas we had clawed back the points and then some. We lead the table by four points from Heerenveen with PSV a further three points back. As 2017 dawned the squad were totally focused on winning the league.

There was another fourth place (or last place) finish in our Champions League group. Drawn in a group against Napoli, Monaco and CSKA Moscow; we simply couldn’t keep it together. All three teams boasted better forwards than us and though we dominated all of our home games (in terms of possession and attempts), they were more clinical with their chances. On the plus side we did finish with two points – which was one better than 2015/16 (it’s progress).

In the Dutch Cup, we lost out in the fourth round to Jupiler League side MVV Maastricht. I played the second string, they battled to a 3-3 draw and were beaten 6-5 on penalties. That was easier to take than the Champions League troubles.

With the first half of the league season out of the way the January transfer window arrived just in time to give me a headache. Thanks to three annoyingly low release clauses, the opening 10 days of the winter window saw Ajax saw goodbye to three of my #IBWM100 stars. Paris Saint-Germain were first in the door with a £15.75 million offer for Riechedly Bazoer. Real Madrid followed a day later with £11.25 million for Andrija Zivkovic. Benfica arrived last with just £7.25 million for Arkadiusz Milik – who had scored 18 goals in 17 league games to guide me to the top of the table.

Losing all three so quickly was hard to take and were I not currently getting around on crutches because I’ve damaged the anterior cruciate ligaments in my left knee, I think I’d have probably taken myself for an actual walk outside (this is the first obvious point where I noticed that I’m starting to care a little too much). As it was I turned the computer off for 30 minutes, allowed myself to calm down and then planned for their replacements.

In retrospect all three were always destined for bigger and better things and with no European football to follow in 2017; I had no hope of keeping them as much as I’d like to tell myself otherwise. I did what I could to remove release clauses from the other players in the squad, or if they were determined to have one I held firm at a minimum value of £20 million.

Celta Vigo and Spain full-back Jonny

As for replacing the departed trio; I brought in two new signings from the #IBWM100 and recalled one loanee. Andreas Christensen arrived from Chelsea for an up-front £15 million – a club record fee according to the game and a Dutch record as per Dutch Football. Christensen had been on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach and playing well in the Bundesliga, so getting him as a replacement for Bazoer was a no-brainer. Winger/striker Sebastián Driussi moved from River Plate in a deal that will eventually total £6 million to replace Andrija Zivkovic’s presence out-wide while Richairo Zivkovic – a former member of The 100 when he was at FC Groningen – was recalled from loan to replace Milik up front.

That wasn’t the end of my spending. Julian Weigl was drafted in from Borussia Dortmund for £10 million to anchor midfield, fearful that I wouldn’t hang on to Viktor Fischer or Davy Klaassen in the face of prolonged interest. Thankfully I managed to keep the wolves from the door and on deadline day, I dipped my toe back into the transfer window waters (too many figures of speech? Yeah, fair) to complete two more signings. Jonathan Tah joined on loan from Leverkusen – looking for first-team football – and Gianluigi Donnarumma joined in deal worth £10 million (but importantly as a permanent player) with the future very much in mind. Donnarumma arrived as a direct result of Barcelona’s refusing to discuss a permanent deal for Dragowski.

More importantly; the flurry of activity meant we were back on for the #IBWM100 XI. I resolved to do it but only after we had secured the title. Thankfully I didn’t need to wait that long as we romped home and secured the league championship with four games to spare. Of the 16 games we played in 2017, we won 14 and drew the other two. The defeat to FC Groningen in our second league of the match turned out to be the only league game we lost all season and we finished the campaign with 85 points – 16 clear of PSV, who beat Heerenveen into second thanks to goal difference.

The #IBWM100 XI arrived two games after the title had been won (due to Jonny picking up a suspension during the title clinching match). Away to Hercales on 15th April 2017, the Ajax team looked as below thanks to a little bit of jiggery-pokery that meant Andreas Christensen was deployed in midfield and Kristoffer Ajer played further forward than usual. We had only five shots on target in the whole game but won 4-2 with three goals in the final 10 minutes. Dreamy.

Despite departing in January, Milik won the Top Scorer accolade. He tied with PSV’s Jürgen Locadia but on account of Arkadiusz playing only 17 times, he was deemed the worthy winner. Jeroen Zoet won a second consecutive Goalkeeper of the Year award, edging out Drągowski and Marco Asensio was named Young Player of the Year. I won Manager of the Year and then gave a rousing speech about how I would be nothing without my players. Héctor Villalba was named as the Fan’s Player of the Season.

It was pleasing to note that on the final day of the league season, the average age of the current Ajax squad sat at 21.09; lower than any other team in the league. Not a surprising statistic given that all of my recent additions have all been born after January 1994, but incredibly encouraging as we try to build a team capable of competing in the Champions League.

2016/17 proved to be another good year in football management with a league title following up the cup win from last year. Worryingly though, as the curtain fell on the season it was confirmed that in 2018/19 the Eredivise would no longer have a guaranteed team in the Champions League group stages. On account of our struggles and the rest of the league to make an impact on either continental competition, we’d allowed the Dutch top flight to fall behind Belgium and Greece. The league would still get two teams into the CL hat but both would need to navigate qualifying rounds to reach the group. It added just a little bit of pressure to the 2017/18 campaign as we would have to work on not only improving our own fortunes in Europe’s premier club competition but lifting the reputation of the league as well. Thankfully, the two go hand-in-hand.

Jairo Riedewald 39 appearances, one goal, one assist, one player of the match award, eight yellow cards, 7.07 average rating

A rock at the back for this team, Jairo continued to improve through the season and picked up a full cap with the Netherlands along the way. Last season was about getting him comfortable in team. This season was all about finding him a partner to work with, which went pretty well. Will bring up a century of league appearances (for Ajax and Jong Ajax) with his first appearance of next season.

Riechedly Bazoer 26 apps, five yellows, 7.09 avg

It was always obvious that Bazoer would quickly become too good for Ajax and more importantly, too good for the Eredivisie. I’m not surprised that he moved to PSG and left me without a first-choice defender. I’m just disappointed we allowed it to happen so cheaply.
Played five league games for PSG during the second half of their season.

Arkadiusz Milik 26 apps, 20 gls, six assts, five pom, one yellow, 7.46 avg

Scored 18 times in 17 league matches to finish the campaign as the top scorer and looked to be on course for a season to remember. He played a part in 26 goals across his 26 appearances in all competitions, and then struggled at Benfica for regular game time.
He scored two goals in seven league games for SLB during the second half of their season.

Andrija Zivkovic 24(3) apps, 11 gls, nine assts, six pom, one yellow, 7.66 avg

One of the mantras I have tried to retain in this game is to focus on always having a replacement at the club (or on the way in). Andrija Zivkovic made a super start to his time with Ajax and I never expected him to last more than three years with the club. The fact he left after just 18 months was highly frustrating but played a massive part in the rise of Héctor Villalba, so not all bad.
He scored four goals in six league games for Madrid during the second half of their season.

Srdjan Plavsic 34(1) apps, five gls, five assts, one pom, two yellow, 6.66 avg (on loan at Elche)

Has returned to the club a much better player after a season in Spain, and should Viktor Fischer finally leave as I expect he will – Plavsic will get a chance to make the left-wing position all of his own. Looked neat and tidy in the games that I went along to “watch”.

Kristoffer Ajer 20(5) apps, two gls, one asst, one pom, five yellows, 7.15 avg

It is incredibly easy to forget just how young Ajer is, and it’s clear he forgets that from time-to-time as well. He had to be spoken to on a couple of occasions when he kicked up a fuss about a lack of first-team football. It may be productive to loan Ajer out for 2017/18 to let him loose, especially with Daley Sinkgraven set to come back after a very impressive 12 months with Marseille.

Goran Karačić

Very much a panic buy after the permanent move for Drągowski failed to happen, Goran Karačić couldn’t get a game for Jong Ajax and didn’t get a game for either of the affiliate clubs that I sent him too. He will be a decent goalkeeper in the future but nowhere near good enough right now. I feel terrible for signing him and really need to find him a club for next season.

Bartłomiej Drągowski 41 apps, 37 goals conceded, 18 clean sheets, 6.84 avg

A supremely talented goalkeeper, Bartlomiej made the loss of Jasper Cillessen much easier to deal with than expected. The rest of the goalkeepers at the club weren’t ready to take on the gloves whereas Drągowski’s problem at Barcelona is the ability of his rivals. Conceded more than a few consolation goals but to be expected when he is still only a teenager.

Almamy Touré 16(5) apps, one goal, two assts, six yellows, 7.39 avg

Almamy has done a fine job when required this season, filling in at both right-back and centre-back with a string of accomplished performances. I’d like to think he’ll play more next season but with the options I have, the only way that will definitely happen is if there are some departures from the club. There are only so many times I can tell him that Ricardo van Rhijn is in the form of life.

Marco Asensio 31(2) apps, one goal, 11 assts, five pom, one red, 7.74 avg

Had he not got a red card in the final few weeks of the season I suspect Marco Asensio would have won the Eredivise Golden Boot as well as the Young Player of the Year award. A wonderful player – capable of controlling the game in any of four positions in our team – it is a shame that Marco is headed back to be a squad player for Real Madrid. I tried to keep him for another year but they are determined to give him a “first team chance”. I’ll try again in January.

Héctor Villalba 21(12) apps, 15 gls, seven assts, nine pom, 7.89 avg

I’m really pleased that when we agreed a deal to sign Héctor on a free transfer, we were offered the chance to make the move immediate for just £1.2 million. Héctor finished the season as the club’s “active top scorer” and contributed quite a few winning goals as we strode towards the title. The fans have *nearly* forgotten all about Andrija Zivkovic. Nearly.

Jonny 26(1) apps, nine assts, one pom, 10 yellows, 7.35 avg

I’m not completely sure how Jonny ending up playing so few games. It felt like he was one of the first names on the team sheet. He arrived rusty but that was sorted out by the end of September and then slotted in seamlessly at left-back. He picked more than his fair share of yellow cards, but how can I be mad at that smile?

Andreas Christensen 15 apps, two gls, one asst, one pom, three yellows, 7.41 avg

Andreas is a proper centre-back playing at centre-back which is marvellous. He has the pressure of being a club record signing hanging around his neck but if his first six months are anything to go by; we have nothing to worry about. He looked comfortable in the Bundesliga which means he has strolled through the Eredivisie so far.

Julian Weigl 10(4) apps, four yellows, 7.07 avg

Neat and tidy in possession, gives the ball to those more inventive than him and positionally disciplined. Julian may just prove to be a master stroke of a signing if things are to work out for me at Ajax. He’s been solid so far and should make the deep lying midfield role all his own next season.

Sebastián Driussi 12(3) apps, four gls, six assts, one pom, 7.53 avg

A 10 goal return from just 15 appearances in a new country is better than can reasonably be expected. Driussi took on the left wing duties from Fischer, made a difference in a string of games and forced the Danish winger to play centrally to get regular game time. Driussi is a natural finisher and can play up front if needed; a steal at £6 million.

Jonathan Tah 4(1) apps, one asst, 7.10 avg

With money burning a hole in my pocket as the transfer deadline loomed, I made a generous offer to Leverkusen to borrow Jonathan for the final six months of the season. I didn’t need him and he didn’t play that much except for in the final few weeks when the title was done. When I asked for him back for 2017/18, they said no.

Gianluigi Donnarumma 3 apps, five gls con, 6.80 avg

With money burning a hole in my pocket as the transfer deadline loomed, I made a generous offer to Milan for Gianluigi. They naturally said yes and I brought him to be our number one of the future. He’s in pole position to take the gloves in 2017/18 but at just 17, I’ll need to find an experienced back-up from somewhere. His three appearances came after we’d won the title.

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