It’s rare in the past three versions of Football Manager that I’ve managed to do more than a single season at a club, largely due to how things work for The Football Manager Football Show.
However, having enjoyed the run in Portugal with Benfica, much like Hibernian last season, I’ve decided to spring for a second season in Liga Bwin while my Kilkenny City save works away in the background. For one, there’s a big sense of familiarity with the squad and how I got them to click for the opening season of FM23 action. Second, while the league success was there, I was annoyed to bail out of the league cup in the early stages before bowing out of the PT Cup at the semi-finals.
As for the Champions League, the group stages worked well, having gone through the qualifying rounds and coming out as group runner-up behind Man City. This time around with a league title in the bag I should be among the top seeds and hopefully see an improved Champions League campaign and ideally avoid Liverpool in the last sixteen. Spoiler alert – we were murdered over two legs thanks to the unlikely midfield bossing by Keita with Luis Diaz unplayable.
That said, our performances over the season helped us move up seven places to 20th in the new European club rankings for the 2023/24 season. As a country, Portugal has dropped to 7th in the European nation coefficients table meaning a reduction in Champions League paces as well for 2024/25 with only the league winner now progressing to the group stages with the runner-up heading into the third qualifying round.
Strengthening the squad
Of the three players brought in on loan for the first season – Laurin Ulrich, Arnaut Danjuma and Julian Draxler – only Draxler is being retained, such was the impact he had over the course of the league.
In all, he wound up making 42 appearances, 32 of those as starts, bagging six goals and 15 assists to produce an average rating across the season of 7.12. His two man-of-the-match awards in the Champions League group stages show how his performances helped in pulling results out of the fire and his versatility meant he could be deployed on the right or left as an inverted winger, or drop back to midfield if needed. At 29-turning-30, he’s still got plenty to offer.
The first signing of the summer transfer window is 19-year-old wonderkid Andreas Schjelderup, mirroring his real-life move to Benfica this season. While I got an unbelievable twist out of Fabio Martins on the left wing for this season, as Danjuma returns to PSG, Martins will drop to more of a squad player with the plan to deploy Schjelderup on the left wing, filling in up top if needs be.
Having chased him all the way from the previous summer window, we scouted, had talks, scouted more, attended games, pulled out all the tricks and at one stage we were looking at a €40m plus transfer in January with FC Nordsjaelland playing some serious hardball. He decided that he would be leaving on a free at the end of the 23/24 season so we’ve swooped in for a €20m pickup.
Next in will be Scottish-born Finnish attacking midfielder Onni Valakari. His purchase was cemented in the January window but he was loaned back to Pafos for the remainder of the season. At 23, he’s already been capped 13 times by Finland and having snapped him up for Frankfurt in the network save (from Benfica), he should provide a solid backup for Rafa as an AMC albeit in more of a traditional role.
I’ve picked up Marin Ljubicic from Hadjuk for an initial fee of €2.2m, though he returns to Hadjuk on a season-long loan. His potential fee is €5.25m but with a €60m release clause gone in, I’ve got high hopes of turning a profit on him if nothing else.
The exit of Ottamendi left me without a captain and a sizeable hole in the defence. While Antonio Silva (19 yo wonderkid) is there from the outset, there were a lot of concerns on Ottamendi’s departure about a lack of cover at the back. I think I’ve over-compensated by bringing in four players capable of filling in a centre-half role, some with the ability to drift into DM where needs must. Perr Schuurs has arrived from Torino on a permanent deal to provide more long-term depth along with season-loan deals for Federico Gatti (RB Leipzig) and Josep Stanisic (Ajax).
The over-compensation is balanced by the fact that I’m flipping between a 4-2-3-1 and a 5-2-3 (or 5-4-1 depending on how you look at it) and with a Champions League and three domestic cup competitions alongside the league to contend with, it gives me a chance for reasonable rotation.
With a chunk of cash still in the pot on transfer deadline day, I added Atalanta’s Giorgio Scalvini to the team, a well-favoured buy in Football Manager 2023. His was a saucy transfer, but Benfica can thank me when I’m gone. His minimum fee release of €51m for foreign clubs is likely to be tested by the end of the season if he maintains the form he’s shown by the time I put this post together.
The addition of Dani Ceballos might have raised a few eyebrows but he had been released by Madrid in the summer and was still sitting on a free transfer by the end of August. As a squad player, he’s ideal to have in the bag, didn’t cost anything to bring in and pulls just a €19,000 wage while offering huge experience. He’s committed, works well for the team and ticks a lot of boxes stats-wise for a 6’4″ midfielder.
Beyond the two loanees returning to their clubs, first out the gap is John Brooks who should be lining out for Bournemouth next season.
The 30-year-old American centre-half is a fairly solid backup but was played out of the squad most of the season. He was a regular in the Champions League but started just eight of 34 regular season games. He’s heading into his final year of contract so it’s a no-brainer to cash out, even if it’s for a fee just shy of €4m.
Nicolás Otamendi is leaving, having signed a pre-contract deal with Inter in the January window meaning I’ll be on the lookout for a new captain and something of an enforcer for my back four. Morato really stood up across this past season but losing a team leader will always ruffle a few feathers.
Swiss striker Haris Seferovic has been on loan at Galatasaray for the season and he’ll be staying there too for €2.5m.
Next out the door is Julian Weigl. He’s been on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach for the season, scoring three in 33 appearances and having a fairly solid season. He would have been a €20m signing for Benfica in 2019 but had a €15m release clause which they’ve met. There are three plusses here – I never got to or had to play him, the €15m will be most welcome, and he’s the club’s top earner by a good €20k or so as he sits on a €77k a week contract. Anyone willing to take him off our hands could have him.
Chiquinho managed just six appearances for me last season, most of those in the early stages. He’ll do a job elsewhere as an AP but it won’t be in Portugal. Instead, he’s off to Sheffield United who are still in the Championship having finished 11th last season.
The biggest departure, financially at least, is that of Florentino Luis who joins Man Utd for €37.5m.
Our total spend was €74m in with around €40m plus loan fees coming in on the other side.
To get warmed up for the league season ahead, we packed 40 players on a pan and headed to the US for a fortnight of football that on paper produced better results than I thought or watched. As it transpired, it wasn’t the worst run of pre-season fixtures.
Having lost to Inter Miami and drawn against Orlando City – with relatively strong teams on the field – I will say I was a bit concerned, but we closed out the US tour with two good wins; pitching a wide 4-2-3-1 for a 2-0 win over Miami FC before introducing my second tactic for the season, a wide 5-2-3 set up (three at the back, two wing-backs, two in the middle, wide wingers and a lone striker).
It doesn’t do me any favours against Real Betis as we turned into August but reaped serious benefits against Gil Vicente in the Super Cup to open up the season (think Charity / Community Shield).
Starting the league
The first few weeks of the league have been kind to us as well, going on a run of five games unbeaten including an opening day 1-0 win over Sporting while managing to keep four clean sheets out of five attempts. Last season I wound up with a fairly established starting eleven but this year I think there will be a bit more rotation to lighten the load between the Champions League, league and domestic cup competitions. I can already see a few concerns over playing time which may lead to an exit or two in January but it takes a full squad to do what I want this year so managing that balancing act is a priority.
Champions League Draw
Last year’s Champions League saw us heading to the draw in pot 3, landing us in the group stages with Juventus and Man City. As luck would have it, draws against both in the opening fixtures and a few points from the other four group games landed us a runner-up spot and a last-sixteen clash with Liverpool. We were eaten alive home and away by a Jurgen Klopp side that did the Premier League and Champions League double but this season, going in among the top seeds, hopefully, makes things a little more favourable.
While we’re 150-1 to win the competition outright and we don’t figure anywhere in the top scorers or considerations for leading players, we have been paired with Napoli, Shakhtar (oh, hello Mudryk) and Greek side Aris. At the time of writing the group stages have started well as we managed to beat Napoli 3-1 at home as we move into September.
As for squad registration, there’s always the issue of having to leave someone out when your squad size is over 25. I’ve got 27 in there, so my third-choice loanee centre-back didn’t mind, but Evander, picked up last January, turned out to be outraged about not being included which has lead to 15 of 27 players having an issue with my treatment of Evander. Just like that. Another one to sort out.
So, with the transfer window behind us and the Champions League underway, it’s time to get stuck into the football.
More to come
That’s a wrap on part one of the second season at Benfica and it’s nice to get back on top of some writing about solo saves.
I’ll get through to the turn of the year, at which stage we’ll have started the Allianz Cup and potentially the PT Cup or league cup with the hope of challenging a bit more for domestic competitions this year.