The FM17 Aston Villa Project – Episode 10

Inspired by Iain Macintosh’s journey with Everton on CM01/02, I’ve decided to boot up Football Manager 2017 and take Aston Villa back to the glory days of the 1980s.

Previous episodes: Episode One, Episode Two, Episode Three, Episode Four, Episode Five, Episode Six, Episode Seven, Episode Eight, Episode Nine

Remember what I said about dealing with January well at the end of the last episode?

Well having booted up the game again and spent an entire 15 minutes staring at my squad, I’m now questioning the business I’ve done.

Ok, so the likes of Conor Hourihane and Rob Holding have come in and done a lovely job, but the others? Chuba Akpom hasn’t exactly set the world alight and Tom Ince has only produced once with a wonder goal.

Other than that, all I see is £18.25m spent and £1.6m made in player sales. My squad doesn’t look a hell of a lot stronger on paper, but I suppose I did manage to persuade Bristol City to spend actual money on Alan Hutton. Every cloud.

This has essentially been the way my Villa career has been up to this point. A mixture of incredible highs and unbearable lows. There’s nothing I can do about it now, though. I must make do with what I have, the ridiculous decisions I’ve made.

January ended with me and Jordan Ayew having a bit of a fall out but given my sudden and unexpected insecurities over my transfer business, it’s probably right to keep him on side.

Morale in the dressing room is mediocre. Most of the lads are currently showing as Fairly Good, Good or Very Good. But Jordan Ayew’s morale is abysmal, which is… not good. And no real surprise.

We begin February with a tasty trip to 3rd placed Nottingham Forest. We’re currently on a 10 game unbeaten run in all competitions, but six of those have been draws. I’ll take a draw away at Forest right now.

That tactical masterclass I used against Liverpool and Brentford at the end of January does not deserve to be tinkered with. I’m wheeling it out again at the City Ground, with a miserable looking Jordan Ayew leading the line.

Unfortunately Diego Poyet isn’t quite fit enough to feature so it’s an unchanged XI. Victory will take us to fourth and just three points behind this lot. Games do not get much more vital than this…

I was beginning to doubt Chuba Akpom’s ability to actually play football. In the two performances he made before this he’d hardly touched the ball. But today he arrived and announced himself as a Villa player in the only way he knows how. By scoring goals.

This new approach seems to be working wonders. We’ve conceded just one goal in the three games I’ve used it in, and that came courtesy of a deflected free-kick just three minutes after Akpom sent the away end at the City Ground in to party mode.

This is officially the approach I’m going to take against teams I know will give me a tough time. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, it only took me nine-and-a-half episodes to work that out. Progress.

Jordan Ayew has done his hamstring and is out three to four weeks. No bother, Chuba Akpom is my main man now.

Now we travel to Anfield for our fourth round replay. I’ve been telling my friends, family and colleagues that I managed to out tactic Jurgen Klopp in the first game and no one really believes me.

They think I got lucky, that the kind of Liverpool we’re experiencing in real life right now is the one that turned up at Villa Park in the game and struggled to score against my rubbish set of players.

We’ll see about that…

Yeah, you guessed it. It’s the same approach. Trouble is, four of my players are cup tied and I have to revert to an XI I was using before I spent a fortune in January. It’s ok, though, nothing changes where the game plan is concerned.

We go there, park the bus and hope to catch them on the counter…

Well that wasn’t the outcome I was hoping for but I can’t be too downbeat about it. Ben Woodburn opened the scoring in the third minute before Nathan Baker’s own goal practically ended all hope of an historic victory. A James Milner brace in the second half made the score look pretty flattering for Liverpool – but as the cliche goes, all our focus can switch to promotion now.

It probably should’ve been more, to be fair. Klopp’s men had 22 attempts on goal to our five. So yeah, disappointing but not the end of the world.

Up next is a home clash against 16th placed Ipswich and nothing less than three points will do. We have a game in hand on the teams around us and maximum points in that will take us to within five points of the automatic spots.

Who needs the FA Cup when you’ve got your eye on getting this great club back to where it belongs?

I can call upon my cup tied players to return for this game and it’s good to know they’ll remain in the team for the rest of the campaign – just as long as they keep fit and disciplined, that is.

I return to my ultra-attacking 4-2-3-1 approach for this, with Akpom leading the line ahead of the crocked Ayew. I have endless faith in my Arsenal loanee to do the business here.

Ipswich were expecting me to go with an attacking formation and are playing with two defensive midfielders as a result. They’ll try and catch me on the counter, but we can deal with that no problem.

Routine victories are becoming, well, routine. Our league form now stands at nine games unbeaten and we’re now considered serious contenders for promotion.

Conor Hourihane was absolutely immense against Ipswich, netting the third goal and returning a rating of 9.0. He’s looking a steal at £2.2m, isn’t he? Perhaps my January business wasn’t so bad after all.

Barnsley at home next. They’re 14th in the league and had gone on a run of five league games without a win before beating Reading in their last outing.

We need another comfortable victory here to boost our goal difference, if nothing else.

I’ve decided to go with an unchanged XI because why fix something that isn’t broken. A victory without any injuries is what I’m looking for because we travel to leaders Newcastle next.

That’s the biggest game of our season so far, so I’ll need a fresh set of legs…

It’s games like this that make me pine for a fit and happy Jordan Ayew. Ok, so we scored four goals and won the game but we had 23 attempts on goal and two of our goals came within the last five minutes when Barnsley were tired a leaving gaps in their defence.

We don’t have a good enough finisher and that worries me. I need Ayew back.

On a happier note, that’s two very comfortable victories on the bounce heading in to the Newcastle game. Ten games without defeat in the league too, which should give my players all the confidence they need to go to St. James’ Park and snatch all three points.

It’s the return of my famous defensive approach. It has worked brilliantly for me so far, with the exception of that defeat at Liverpool, so I’m hopeful of more success here.

Diego Poyet finally makes his Aston Villa debut as he replaces Westwood in defensive midfield. Ross McCormack drops to the bench because there’s no need for a No.10 today, but he could be introduced at some point depending on how we’re doing.

That’s not the end of the world. We’ve taken four points off Newcastle this season and that’s not to be sniffed at – they’re the best side in the league by a country mile.

I thought we were on to something when Jack Grealish found himself unmarked at the back post to tap us in to the lead after just 20 minutes but a lapse in concentration at the back led to Mitrovic’s equaliser only a few minutes later.

The thing about dropping points, if you can really call it that, is that we now cannot afford to do the same in our game in hand. Now is not the time to drop more points, we must keep the pressure on the top two.

It is now that I reflect on the early stages of this project and how badly it was going and realise how far we’ve come. No more confusion, no more tinkering, no more waiting for the sack. We’re where we want to be now and the project is finally on course to succeed.

There’s a long way to go but the Premier League awaits. I just know it.

QPR’S win at Birmingham sees them leapfrog Newcastle in to top spot. That makes our hard fought point at St. James’ Park even more important.

Bristol City arrive at Villa Park looking to end our 11 match unbeaten run in the league.

They’ve lost their last two outings after going on their own unbeaten run of five games. Their relegation fears have eased but they’re still in trouble, and I intend to make their lives a complete misery.

We’re at home against inferior opposition, so the attacking formation returns. Three points please, chaps…

They came to frustrate us in true Jose Mourinho fashion. It would make more sense if Mourinho was actually the manager of Bristol City, but he isn’t. This is a result I did not expect and despite keeping our unbeaten run in the league, we now trail the automatic promotion places by seven points.

That’s not an impossible deficit to close but the job becomes a little harder now.

Nathan Baker limped off in the second half with a torn groin muscle and will now be sidelined for seven to nine weeks. Tommy Elphick will be pleased because he’ll step in to replace him. It’s a big loss but my strength in depth shines through when injury strikes. The bad January business is brimming upsides all of a sudden.

Our final game in February is at home to Derby County, who are 12th and not really doing much with their existence at the moment.

They beat us 4-1 at their place earlier on in the season and will be looking to complete an unlikely double over the mighty Villa. We’re a different animal now, though. Promotion contenders and draw specialists are what we are, compared to the spineless bunch group of football pretenders we once were.

I’d love nothing more than ending February with another three points courtesy of a Tom Ince double hat-trick. Unlikely, perhaps, but he’s going to be up for it, isn’t he?

Well Tom Ince was destined to score, wasn’t he? Trouble is, the rest of my players are complete and utter idiots. Avoid defeat, I said. Keep up the pressure on the top two, I said. Instead, they crumble to a humiliating home defeat to a rubbish Derby County. Perhaps my January business was as bad as I first thought.

Such a disgraceful loss leaves us ten points behind the top two with just 12 games left to play. I fear automatic promotion is beyond our reach now, it looks like we’ll have to settle for the play-offs.

Here’s a run down of our results in February…

The defeat to Derby was our first in the league since mid-December and may well have ended our chances of going up without having to endure the dreaded lottery of the play-offs.

The top 12 of the Championship at the end of February looks like this…

Just nine points separate 3rd and 10th, which makes it pretty exciting for the neutral. It’s not over for us but Newcastle and QPR already seem to have wrapped up their places in the Premier League.

I remember when Sam Allardyce took the West Ham job all those years ago and claimed that if a team is to have any chance of promotion from the Championship, it must not lose more than eight games.

We’ve reached that milestone now and if we’re to take inspiration from Allardyce’s mantra, we need to go on another 12 game unbeaten run.

I don’t know about you but, I can’t see that happening. Perhaps my January business was as bad as I first thought, or perhaps it’s time they proved me wrong.

<< Click here for Episode Nine