Blimey, we only went and did it!
An incredible end to an incredible season sees us crowned as champions. My first Premier League triumph since, I’m pretty sure, FM06. But we were made to work for it right to the end.
Having dispatched Man City in the league and opening up a 5 point gap, I knew that Arsenal presented the last serious obstacle, and so it proved. In truth we were completed outplayed and deservingly took a tonking. Much to my surprise though, City also suffered a shock defeat to Swansea, meaning that we were still very much in charge of the title race. Crystal Palace were next, the scene of Liverpool’s very famous real life collpase under Brendan Rodgers and it proved to be a banana skin for my digital representation too. After taking an early lead, Andros Townsend turned in a world class performance, running as ragged as we went down to a 2-1 defeat. Suddenly the pressure was back on, out 5 point gap once again reduced to 2 and, instead of the final day of the season becoming a procession instead turning into a tense affair.
Our final game saw the visit of West Ham. Again we took the lead, seeing out the first half 1-0, buoyed by bottom of the league Burnley taking the lead against City. But again, the opposition got back into it and I started to fear the worst. Fortunately however the players had other ideas. In a display of complete and utter domination, featuring no less than 43 chances created, we ran out 4-1 winners, sealing the title in emphatic fashion by 2 points from City, who themselves recovered to dispatch Burnley.
It has been an incredible league season. Just 3 defeats all year, one of those coming against City, the other 2 coming during the final 4 games of our run in. We also helped ourselves to a club record points haul of 91 for good measure, adding the league to our earlier Carabao Cup triumph. There is a temptation to rake over the ‘what ifs’ of our run of course. Could we have avoided defeat against Arsenal? Could I have made tactical tweaks that would have seen us hold out Palace? The narrow margin of victory also gives voice to that pesky part of my brain that says, ‘hey, you didn’t really deserve it, you got lucky.’
But the facts tell a different story. We were never expected to win the league. We were something like 5th favourites. This was always City’s title to lose and besting them, by whatever margin, is an incredible achievement. With just 3 defeats and 7 draws, top goalscorers, meanest defence, fewest defeats, unbeaten home record and highest average rated player, we had an unbelievable season by anyone’s standard. The fact that the title race was so close speaks more to City’s strength in matching our results than it does any weakness in our performance. Plus we had been top almost all season, spending only 5 weeks of the season in anything other than 1st place and then only dropping to a low of 3rd. This was very much our victory, taken from the front and never given up.
For the last few years, my single greatest FM achievement was getting Sutton promoted from Conference South to Premier League in FM14. I have finally found something to match it.
As the Premier League’s highest rated player, 6th best goalscorer and joint highest recipient of man of the match awards, our star man was undoubtedly Mo Salah. The funny thing is, I wasn’t always sure he was playing that well. He would often go several games without scoring, drifting to ratings of 6.5 or lower. But his tally of 31 goals and 16 assists in 41 starts across all competitions speaks of a level of consistency.
Just one goal behind, and matching Salah’s PL output of 17, was Roberto Firmino. Again, he had games where he seemed to disappear but he was also responsible for a number of huge goals, especially towards the end of the campaign and his tally of 18 assist speaks to his versatility.
The assist king though, completing our look at Liverpool’s established 3 attackers, was Sadio Mane. His PL goal output was fairly disappointing, although 14 in all competitions is reasonable. However with a whopping 26 assists in all comps, he certainly played his part.
Other players also impressed; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain proved himself to be versatile and effective across midfield, Virgil van Dijk, despite being something of a moody agitator, marshalled the defence supremely, Alisson Becker made some absolutely crucial stops, collating a total of 23 clean sheets across 51 appearances, including 5 straight PL shut outs, and conceding just 47. However the other standout was a player I wasn’t sure I even needed and kinda bought just because I had bought him on an earlier save; Nabil Fekir. As it turned out, he played an important role in our season, contributing 15 league goals in just 21 starts with 22 in all competitions and 16 assists. A truly magnificent signing that allowed me to confidently rotate my front 3.
Sadly our Premier League exploits were not quite replicated in Europe. Having reached the semis we had a real crack at glory. With City awaiting us, I knew we would be in for a test. The first leg was at the Etihad and I was unsure how to set up. I opted for a defensive shape to try and contain them before becoming more expansive as the tie went on. Things soon turned sour though and after a thorough battering, we came away with a 0-4 defeat. Tie very much over.
Or so I thought. With nothing to lose, I set us up to attack in the return leg. Even then we had to be patient, both teams cancelling each other out until Mane pounced in injury time in the first half. After the break, Salah notched, before grabbing his second, and our 3rd, in the 71st minute. Against all the odds, we were back in with a real shout of at least taking the tie to extra time. Sadly, and despite switching to an ultra attacking strategy, we couldn’t find an equaliser and we were out in a a glorious blaze of failure. Still, I felt better that we had at least got a measure of revenge from the first leg and restored some respectability to the scoreline. With Spurs progressing in the other semi, it will be an all English final.
Once again, that voice of failure nags in the back of my head. ‘You coulda won it all,’ it says to me. ‘You got it wrong against Watford in the FA Cup, you stuffed up against City in the Champions League,’ it bleats. Again, some perspective is required. Realistically I had no expectations beyond a good crack at the cups and a top 4 finish. To say we have exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. Maybe I’ll just enjoy what we have.
With Naby Keita joining next season, the return of several young prospects, a Premier League to defend and a Champions League to win, there is a lot to look forward to next season.
Here’s the thing though; I’m not sure I’m going to. I’ve really enjoyed this save. After numerous false starts, this has been one of my most satisfying games of FM in some time. I have felt empowered, seen my tactical plans come to life in front of me, been tested to make decisions and been rewarded by being bold. At the same time, I have barely scratched the surface of the level of detail within the game, rarely availing myself of scouting, team dynamics, post match analysis and countless other tools that serve to make FM the absolute unrivalled pinnacle of sports management.
There is a lot to look forward to and yet I am conscious of the time dedication that FM demands, at least to play it in the way I enjoy it. I may come back to it, I may not. The key for me is that I no longer feel that I have to, just to prove a point. I am contented. I am happy.
And that is perhaps the greatest victory of all.