As The Football Manager Football Show heads into season 11 and pastures new, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what unfolded at Frankfurt.
By way of a refresher (or you can read it in detail here)
- We drew lots for the podcast, all Bundesliga teams in a pot, Robbie (now retired) drawing Koln, Shane with Augsburg and yours truly picking up Frankfurt.
- Squad options looked healthy – Kolo Muani a standout on paper, Rafael Santos Borré also in the squad (having had use of him for my stint with River during the FM21 cycle). At 39, Hasabe (as captain) wasn’t going to be getting much game time in the defence
- Champions League football was already assured, with Frankfurt in the group stages
- There was a €27m transfer kitty to be used as I saw fit, provided new signings were under the age of 23 for the first team
Summing up the season was fairly straightforward – the first half was a car crash, the second half was sublime. In the end, it took a “win or you’re sacked” approach from the board, plus a switch from one to two up top and we turned the bus around, just before it hurtled off the edge of the mountain, wheels already burning, engine smoking, and passengers on board fearing for their lives.
I don’t actually think in all my time playing Football Manager, even harking back to some of the difficult, dark days of Championship Manager, that I experienced as bad a run of form, morale and pressure, but looking back at it now, I’d nearly go again for a second bite at the Bundesliga. If it’s early days in your FM universe, unless you’re Bayern or Dortmund, you’re going to need a serious rub of the green to crack the top two.
Looking at how the season actually finished out for Frankfurt, of the top six teams, we lost the most amount of games – 11 in all – but still managed a fourth-placed win. Some of those were spankings, some of them were tight affairs where a late goal lost the game. And, we either won or we lost, which was the strange one. Of the 34 games in the league season, we only took three draws. We cracked 20 wins (a club record) but lost 11 times. Cut 11 down to six or even seven defeats and now we’re really knocking on the door of the top two. It’s not impossible, but it would take a lot of work and likely a second of third season.
Plus, by that stage, it’s likely that Dortmund and Bayern will have invested heavily whereas with Frankfurt, the money pit isn’t bottomless.
Was it enjoyable? By December we were nearly begging for the sack. Robbie had tuned out with other commitments while Shane and myself were struggling.
Keeping in mind that this was the 2023/2024 season, here’s how our transfer activity panned out, both for the summer and winter windows. Transfers – the buying, selling and loaning in and out of players – is one if the biggest parts to the Football Manager puzzle, much like it is in real life. The right – or wrong – transfers can be the making and breaking of a club, your team dynamic, support from the fans and the board alike. It’s also one of the first things I get into with any new team – check the finances, see what’s on offer, go shopping and worry about who fits where later. Think kid in a sweet shop territory. If there’s money in the bank, I’m likely to spend it as best I can.
Arriving at the club, a good chunk had already been laid out by the previous management including the arrival of Ebimba from PSG for 7.5m, Joe Scally from relegated Borussia Monchengladbach and Viborg goalkeeper Luas Lund who was obviously promised more than I could offer him for this season.
My spending was mixed and most of the deals wound up being structured. The arrival of Dion Drena Beljo from Sporting turned out to be key. Shane had brought him into the Sporting fold last season, where he was hot for the start of the season and switched off in the second half. His €15m transfer fee worked out as €5m in cash and €10m over three seasons, not too bad considering his development into a €33m-rated striker by the end of the season.
Of course, if you listen to the first installment of season 11, you’ll discover that I may have left in a fairly low minimum fee release clause that ends up landing Beljo a dream move to the Premier League. He would go on the missing list for six weeks through sprained knee ligaments in the latter stages of October, contributing to our ongoing woes that saw seven first team starters sidelined through injury for a number of weeks. Outside of that, he stayed pretty healthy across the season, hit 22 goals in 29 games in the league and added a few more in Europe.
If I had to take someone with me from Portugal, it was going to be Onni Valakari who I managed to nick off my old club for €600k. The Scottish-born Finnish attacking midfield is a joy as a utility player. In 30 appearances for the club, including 21 in the league (7 from starts), he managed 7 goals and posted a 6.94 for the season. His appearances were more limited after Christmas though with a change of tactic as you’ll see below.
I went back to Borussia Monchengladbach for Oscar Fraulo (€4.1m) while bringing in Tobias Bech from Ingolstadt for €2.2m. These were more future buys for Frankfurt, both spending time out on loan for the season.
Looking to bolster the defence due to Hasabe turning 39 and looking at retirement, Mario Vuskovic joined in August from Hamburg, followed a day later by Amar Dedic (below) from RB Salzburg. His was a big buy – €5.5m up front with another €12m over three seasons. However, after looking at his first season and the shift he put in in the league, it’ll be money well spent.
At 21 years old he’s heading towards a €40m rating in the Bundesliga, a fee likely to increase massively with a shift to the Premier League. He gets forward whenever possible and likes to knock the ball past opponents, so making him an attacking full-back / wing back suited him down to the ground. With 17 pace, 15 acceleration and a decent work rate on and off the ball, he was one of the finds of the season.
He also racked up 9 assists in 30 league games and finished with an average of 7.26 for the Bundesliga campaign.
Thinking I may require the services of another striker, Emanuel Emegha made the jump from Sturm Graz for €15m with young Brazilian attacking midfielder Antony joining for a mere €275k. One of the best investments of the season though turned out to be the arrival of Mattias Svanberg on loan from Wolfsburg on transfer deadline day, the club having been relegated the season previous.
It turned out that Svanberg was a bit of a free-kick specialist and some man to hang a corner. Playing as a CM on attack earlier in the season and later a segundo volante, he made 27 appearances in the league, scoring six times and grabbing a further eight assists. For a €1.6m loan fee that would turn into an end-of-season €15m transfer, he’s bound to star for Frankfurt in the 2024/2025 season having proved real value for money.
We would go back to the well in January for two deadline day signings, a Football Manager favourite in Andrea Belotti and Werder Bremen’s Niklas Stark, he of House Stark.
How it started
Pre-seasons are funny. I play them religiously, start with the tactic I’m planning on implementing for the season, rotate the squads for minutes, and hope that after six or seven games we’re starting to get some kind of cohesion.
While the level of opposition wasn’t great, we nailed six wins in the space of a fortnight, including back-to-back days in the “friendly cup” which was a nice tune-up for Borré and Beljo as a potential dynamic duo. Svanberg (above) wouldn’t arrive in until two games into the league season.
Beljo was particularly fruitful during preseason, including the opener against Chelsea as we go on to beat them 3-1 at home.
That was followed up with a first-round DFB-Pokal win, a 4-0 dismantling of Furstenwalde. Getting into the league proper turned out to be a very up-and-down affair, however, with a 4-1 thumping away to Bayern followed by a 4-1 thrashing at home of Bochum, including a Beljo hat-trick. I’m on a winner I thought, with zero expectations for the Bayern game, the Bochum fixture giving me hope that my Benfica-inspired 4-2-3-1 might work in Germany.
Not so. September gave us two wins, two defeats and a draw in the league, while we also pissed away a 2-0 lead over PSG in the Champions League. The stop-start nature of the games sparked a winless streak stretching to mid-November, including a 4-1 hammering away to Bayer Leverkusen, a defeat at home to Galatasaray in the Champions League and another 4-0 defeat to Stuttgart. We managed to score a single goal for the whole of the month.
My worst run of form, possibly ever, saw several early-season team meetings, a lot of shouting and heated team talks.
November didn’t start much better either, a 3-0 away defeat to Hoffenheim sending us out of the DFB-Pokal, a competition we were expected to perform reasonably well in. We also threw away a 2-0 lead over Shane’s Augsburg side in the next match but managed to turn up the head against Galatasaray in the return leg. Leading from the 6th minute, we hit the net three times in the final ten minutes after much berating from the sideline.
We were able to nick a late winner against Hoffenheim towards the end of November, a Svanberg free-kick special, but a 4-1 defeat away to Atletico meant our Champions League campaign was over. I’m also fairly sure that the loss on the road to Arminia Bielefeld almost cost me my job.
The turning point
After a fairly miserable run of form that saw us without a win from late September through early November (hello, Galatasaray), something had to change. For the board, that was a change in management unless I could argue my case to the contrary.
As it happened, Shane was getting the exact same treatment at Augsburg and in the same week, we were both hauled into our respective board rooms and told (after orchestrating our answers a little so that we didn’t immediately talk ourselves out of Germany) that we would have five games to get eight points minimum or face the sack.
We had just come off a late 3-2 defeat to PSG followed by a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Hertha. We were scoring goals, but also leaking them. Fans were edlighted with the goals when they came but we were getting slated on all fronts for our defensive frailties. Something had to change.
The 4-2-3-1 Wide, a roaring success in Portugal with Benfica, just wasn’t cutting it in Germany and with plenty of striking options available – Beljo, Borré, Emegha, Kolo Muani, Valakari, Hague, Gotze, Lindstrom, Kamada (ok, I’m really going down the pecking order here), I figured it was high time to play two up top. We’d had plenty of one-on-one chances across the first half of the season that went astray, leaving me thinking “sure if I had someone there, off the shoulder, someone able to collect the rebound or provide the option to pass rather than go it alone…”, you can see where I’m going with this.
Now, we were playing a 4-2-4 (or a 4-4-2 with an inverted winger/inside forward, depending on the mood of the day). By the end of the season, it was looking like this, but it took some going to get there.
From the 4-2-3-1 I had been playing, the setup for the back four stayed the same – supporting wingbacks and two ball-playing defenders, this much had worked well at Benfica. Trapp remained a sweeper keeper on defend, the only issue I had being dropping Vuskovic into the back four as his want to “get further forward” was in contrast to the setup. He didn’t stay too long there.
Passing was kept short, we stayed working the ball into defence, got rid of our immediate counter in the hope of cutting down the number of errant shots on goal, kept the high press. Nothing overly fancy. Stick to the wings, cut inside go from there.
The big changes were in the middle of the park though, dropping my centre midfielders to a double DM, Svanberg as the volante, Jakic as a ball-winning midfielder or occasionally as a second volante in the spirit of a double pivot.
Depending on who was starting on the wings, they would be either as an inside forward (Lindstrom, Borré on the left on occasion) or inverted winger (Kolo Muani, Hauge on the right). The wingers roles became interchangeable as well, particularly between Lindstrom, Hauge, Kolo Muani who were equally adept on the left and right. We maintained a balanced mentality, usually for the first 45 minutes and then would jump to positive if the going was good.
As the January transfer deadline approaching, I decided on two things – a new striker, who would end up as number three to Beljo and Borré, and a new centre back, someone with a bit of height, a bit of pace and a right foot to sit on the right of the centre pairing (N’Dicka being the left-footed other side of the pair).
With Niklas Stark lined up for defensive duties, the offensive option came from a trip to Italy on transfer deadline day. Roma looked like they’d had a falling out with their 44-time capped Italian striker Andrea Belotti who, in another world or at least last year’s FM would have set us back a tidy sum arrived in for €4m, broken into €1m in cash and €3m over the next three seasons.
Starting out his FM23 life at Roma off the back of a free transfer from Torino, he hit 5 in 25 in his first season in Serie A, knocking in another 3 in 10 appearances for Jose Mourinho but with Tammy Abraham and Nicolo Zaniolo doing the business up top, he was out of favour and going on the cheap. Having worked on retraining Emegha as a right winger (while viewing him as the backup to the front two), the former Sturm Graz man still carried some injury concerns. I’d already lost him for a month in October and, not knowing it at the time, would lose him again for a month from February into March, so having someone with Belotti’s experience, who could bring influence into the dressing room and hopefully give us an edge later in the season. No pressure then.
But I digress.
The effective ultimatum from the board in December sparked an incredible turnaround in form. Given five games to secure eight points or be out of a job in January, I figured we could get three each from Koln (now Robbie-less) and Schalke, leaving us needing two points from Bayern, Union Berlin (who we owed for a 3-1 rattle in October) and RB Leipzig.
What transpired was a 1-0 win over Koln (thank you Svanberg), immediately followed by a 4-0 win at home two days shy of Christmas with Beljo firing a hat-trick. Six points from two games with no guarantees from the next three, we end up with Kolo Muani bagging a winner against Bayern, stuffing Union Berlin 3-1 including a double from Borré before putting the icing on the game with a 3-0 home win against Leipzig, again with Beljo on the double.
Mission accomplished in the eyes of the board, our five-game streak in the league added another six games unbeaten in February (5 wins, 1 draw), including 4-1 win over FC Kobenhavn to set up a last-sixteen Europa League knockout clash with Chelsea.
The European dream ended in March with a double defeat to Chelsea while getting stuffed by Dortmund early in the month. Book-ended by wins over Bayer Leverkusen and Stuttgart though, the loss to Dortmund was our first in the league since mid-December. All of a sudden we’d gone from 13th and looking at the chop up towards 6th and knocking on the door of European qualification for next season.
Add four straight wins in April and we were safe, European football secured at the very least. The players might have partied hard at the end of April as we hit the skids against Hertha to open May, dumped Koln 3-0 and fell to Schalke 1-0 on the last day of the season but at that stage we’d completed one of the greatest turnarounds after one of the biggest shit-show starts to a season I’ve ever experienced.
How it finished
In the windup, having looked at one stage like were heading for the chop before heading for the drop, we did well to turn things around.
Compare the first half of the season (scroll above) to what unfolded in the second half of the season and they’re like chalk and cheese. The tactical switch in December paid off big time. We went from a -10 goal difference to finishing the season with a +23 and ending the season as third in the goal-scoring charts.
Results on the last day of the season meant we pipped Leipzig to the last Champions League spot on goal difference, but only trailed Leverkusen in third by three points. As turnarounds go, it was something to behold.
Some players could have performed better. Kevin Trapp was positively abysmal in the early part of the season. He’d already shipped 25 goals in 14 games by October and I’m pretty sure at one stage on the podcast that I swore I’d drop him and never play him again. It lasted two games, but he found his way from Christmas onward and the defensive frailties that were tearing through our early season performances all but disappeared.
I’m a seven-or-bust type of manager when it comes to end of season ratings. Hauge was close with a 6.95, but Lindstrom’s 6.84 could easily have been a 7.84. As the season progressed I felt the 24-year-old had played out of his skin on the left wing. The figures tell a different story but his contributions helped massively.
Beljo takes top honours though for the season. 23 goals in 37 games in all competitions, an average rating of 7.22, with Amar Dedic close behind him on 7.18 for the season. The fact that six players from this season did enough to knock into the Best Eleven selection was a pretty solid return on investment.
Even from the xG edition of the final table above, the prediction was that the top two would be at least 14 points clear of the chasing pack, where in the end the difference between Bayern and Leverkusen was 18 points. Also, if you’ve never used the xG table view previously, it’s a great tool to figure out if you’re where you could be or should be and where you’re going.
For us, we performed above expectations in the end – a prediction to finish with 56 points was exceeded by seven, but we did well on the goalscoring front, knocking in 63 across the campaign to finish third-highest goalscoring side overall.
What next for Frankfurt?
From the outset, I’d already made an investment in two players for next season – Tobias Bech and Oscar Fraulo. But there will be changes. Aurélio Buta will be heading out of the club, club captain Makoto Hasebe is finally retiring at the age of 40 having made just five appearances over the course of the season. He’ll be joined on the road to retirement by Sebastian Rode (33) which is going to be a bit of a problem as both Hasebe and Rode along with Kevin Trapp make up the three team leaders, leaving a sizeable hit in the dynamics and dressing room setup.
I have set them up with a permanent deal for Mattias Svanberg, however, which will cost €15m but thanks to Champions League qualification and a fourth-placed finish, the coffers got a massive injection with €75m in the transfer budget while there’s another €86m incoming in prize money.
They’ll get an extra boost to the tune of around €30m too as I’m taking Evan N’Dicka with me to Liverpool as I rebuild things there (Matip out, N’Dicka in) while Barcelona and Man Utd are showing interest in Kolo Muani too and a €41m bid may just lure him out of Frankfurt.
The gas thing is, having made it through the season, and with the cash available, you can see where there’s potential to do damage over the next season or two and really build the squad into title challengers. Tactically, things are clicking, after a season I’ve got a good influence over the dressing room and the players themselves are all content. It’s still going to take some serious doing to overthrow Bayern or Dortmund, but I’ve more belief after coming through this season that it’s actually possible. Just how resourced you would need to be remains to be seen.
What next for me?
On the podcast front, I’m off to Liverpool, a club I’ve not managed in earnest since the Championship Manager days, or best case Football Manager 2005. On the solo save, I’ll get back to Benfica soon enough and see if we can bring some of it to stream.
For the moment though, it’s auf wiedersehen to Germany and on we go! If you missed any of our stay in Germany, or if you’ve never listened to the podcast and want to jump right into the latest season (forgetting about Argentina, England, Spain, Turkey, Italy, Scotland, France, South Africa and Portugal), you’ll find links to all the relevant episodes below. And yes, 112 is missing as it was a break from the league.
The Football Manager Football Show: Germany
- E109: Part 1 – The dip, the draw, and setting out our stall in Germany
- E110: End of pre-season in Germany
- E111: A slippery start, but things can only get better…
- E113: Transfer deadline day in Germany (Summer window)
- E114: It’s a race to the bottom and we’re barely into October
- E115: When you can’t buy a goal, let alone a win in Germany
- E116: November in Germany and it’s already El Sackicko time
- E117: December in Germany and the board give us 5 games to save our jobs
- E118: Things are starting to turn around but not quite at Augsburg
- E119: Marching on – we’re going up the table at long last
- E120: The European dream dies and we’re into the last month in Germany
- E121: The end of the road in Germany – season 10 finale