The 4-4-2 Diaries - Squad Building


In my last blog for WSFM, I documented my approach to conducting an end of season review where we outlined a strategy regarding the existing squad in terms of who to sell, re-sign or redevelop. The continuation of this is obviously reshaping the squad for next season by bringing in new players. I start by identifying what tactical approach we might use based on the players we are planning to keep and then identify transfer targets for the upcoming window to fill the squad gaps.


The End of Season Review for Sunderland produced a pretty clear result: rebuild. I had taken over just before the January window and already did the heavy lifting by dumping players with huge contracts that didn’t fit our preferred formation, style, or were simply crap. This left me with a small squad of players to get me through the rest of the year. The review process identified 8-10 players who’ll we planned on keeping so we now need to define an approach to rebuilding the squad for next season.


Based on the info from the review I defined some objectives in order to focus our efforts in the transfer window:

  • Tactical thoughts: Switch to a counter-attacking system. Solid in the centre of the pitch and more creative from wide positions.

  • No more Jack Rodwell’s. All contracts must be reasonable for a championship level club and within a set framework based on salary limits depending on the players’ squad status.

  • Squad limits: 2 players per position + 2 x Utility slots.

  • Each position either has a Key Player and a Backup or two First Team/Rotation level players.

  • Look for physical and technical type of players.

  • Use a DoF model. Identify transfer targets and then hand things over to the DoF to negotiate transfers in the first instance. DoF to handle transfers for Under 23s.

  • Develop a Younger Core.  First Team signings should be under 27.


  • Move all players that are not in our plans for next season to the Under 23’s and transfer list or set to release those players whose contracts won’t be renewed.

  • Review any unsolicited bids for players. We accepted bids for Max Power and Bali Mumba as both were expendable and the latter had his release clause met so the board signed off.

  • Build a preliminary tactic based on our goals defined above. Put existing players into their appropriate positions.

  • Review/Change Development Training for all first-team players to refine their role training and/or acquire new PPMs.

  • Setup my squad spreadsheet with our existing playing squad less any expected to be sold. I put an indicator next to each player to define if a player is a (1) Key Player, (1A or 1B) First Team/Rotation player, or (2) Rotation/Backup. Note:  I can only have a 1+2 or a 1A+1B combo for each position to control our spend.

  • Review existing watchlist. Remove any players that don’t fit our system or needs. Set wanted players from watchlist as Transfer Targets for the DoF to start negotiations.

  • Attend matches for any Targets still playing. If playing in England our season is usually over before European leagues so potential target may still be playing. Some of you may already be familiar with the @OfficiallyTeach pursuit already which includes announcing your intention to sign the player to the media.

  • Get DoF transfer suggestions for all positions needed and request scouting reports for any of interest.

  • When adding a player as a transfer target I select the desired squad status so the DoF can negotiate within those salary limits.

  • Let the DoF do his job. If he fails to negotiate a transfer, I usually let him take a second crack at agreeing to terms or step in myself.  On failed deals, there may be something funky going on with FM functionality or possibly demands from the player not necessarily in the club’s best interest to accept.

  • Review Transfer/Loan listed players.

  • My first preference is to bring in players on trial wherever possible before signing.  I will book extra friendlies to do so if needed or play them in the Under 23s and watch highlights.

  • When watching matches I select/highlight the player I’m most interested in assessing so I can track their movement both with and without the ball. Here, I’m watching Vlahovic track back:



There are countless ways to identify players to sign in FM. My personal strategy will depend on the funds available and the objectives I have set for myself with the save (e.g. youth dev, pure journeyman).  On my current save, given the financial constraints at Sunderland, we need to be creative rather than just giving the DoF a shopping list that would command massive transfer fees. We’re a sell-to-buy club at this point but I’m still able to use different methods to find players:

The Talisman - find that quality player that takes the squad to a new level.  There are plenty of disgruntled big-name players who you can snag on loan for a portion of their wages even if you can’t afford the transfer fee.

We came close but ultimately failed to land both Martin Odegaard and Mishi Batshuyi. We made some good signings but haven’t yet found that special player who can transform this team. I will save some budget for January and keep my eye out in the interim.

The Prodigal Son - few football narratives are as powerful as the return of a prodigal son.  

In January 2019 Josh Maja was sold to Bordeaux after refusing to sign a new deal with Sunderland. I’m hoping for a do-over. He’s here on loan for the season but we’ve got an option to buy him outright for £2M if all goes well.

The Prodigy - we all know those young players waiting for that opportunity to get in a load of games and let their talent blossom rather than stagnate on the bench at another club.  

We brought in Xadas from Braga for £875K and young Italian prodigy Luca Vido on a free transfer. The latter has been at Cagliari, Atalanta, Perugia and Milan but hasn’t settled yet despite his obvious talent.

The One You’ve Always Fancied - there’s usually a player or seven out there that you’ve never had the chance to manage and when the opportunity arises, you should...

Josh Vela from Bolton might seem like a bit of a random choice, but I’ve always liked the way he seems to dictate play from midfield. Misic from Sporting Lisbon was our first choice but we passed on him due to wage demands

The Does What It Says On The Tin  - we all have spots to fill on the team sheet and would love to have world beaters in every position but sometimes your wage budget dictates getting someone who is simply good enough to do a job at the level you’re at.

Callum O’Dowda will do a job on the left flank. He has a bit of a trick about him and will be industrious, so he’s a bit of a regular in my Championship saves.

The If In Doubt, Raid Benfica - we all know what a treasure trove Portuguese clubs can be and Benfica is the pick of the bunch. There is so much talent in the ranks of that club it’s not hard to find a stellar talent on the cheap for your squad.

Alex Pinto is our new starting right back and based on his first performances for us, I think I’m in love.

The DoF Suggestion - don’t sleep on suggestions from your DoF. I’ve found plenty of gems this way.

Claudio Reyna put me on to Yanna Regasel (backup right back) from Dusseldorf, Sabiri from Huddersfield (left inverted winger) and Gian Felicoli (starting left back) from Milan. All were signed on free transfers.

The One For the Future - Our Academy of Light kids are our first priority but we augment our Under 23’s by adding young players released from clubs with excellent acadamies.

We picked up Clarke-Salter from Chelsea and Reyna has been raiding Southampton for our Under 23’s.

The Phil Neville - players with good all-around technical and mental attributes that can pinch hit in multiple positions can prove invaluable. I don’t need them to be outstanding. I just want someone to do a job at full-back or in midfield from time to time.

We picked up Marcus McGuane who was sitting in Barca’s reserves for the past couple of years. He’s able to put in a shift in eight different positions in either midfield or defensive. He may never play more than a game to two for us, but he looked decent in friendlies and gives us a lot of value for money in terms of cover.

So at the close of the window, I think we’ve done some decent business with £12.5M in sales and only spending just under £4M. I am still pursuing a couple of free agents as I think we can get them on cheaper wages than their initial demands during the window, but overall I’m happy with the business we’ve done.  We’re nearly £100k under the wage budget and still have £2.4M in transfer budget remaining.


Here’s the completed spreadsheet:


Compared to the rest of the division we are way under our biggest rivals but I’m aiming for playoffs and/or promotion this season:

So between the End of Season Review and the above squad building approach that about does it for my approach to getting things ready for the new season. The situation with Sunderland is way more chaotic than my usual approach but it’s a rebuilding situation.  I’m keen to crack on with some games and stop blogging so I’ll leave it there.

Sparky, Out!