This time last year, we ran an FM Experiment in which we took charge of the team sitting bottom of the Premier League at Christmas and attempted to lead them to survival with Big Sam Allardyce. This year, we’re bringing the experiment back but on a bigger scale, with leagues in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain available to choose from.
With Football Manager 23 loaded up, we holidayed ahead to 25 December 2022 to see who’s sitting bottom of the top five European leagues and select the most interesting option available to Big Sam. We’ll choose the most exciting challenge, manage them for five months then, no matter if we keep them up of get relegated, holiday ahead to the next Christmas Day and create a new Big Sam.
Bottom At Christmas Season 1
At Christmas 2022, there were several intriguing options available. Sassuolo were bottom of Serie A and 5 points from safety, Girona were 6 points from safety in La Liga. Clermont Foot were 5 points off safety in Ligue 1 and Augsburg were a trickier 9 points off safety in Bundesliga. But the most intriguing challenge looked like Southampton, who were 20th in the Premier League and 1 point off safety after 16 matches. So Big Sam installed himself as the new manager at St. Mary’s.
Heading into the final 22 games of the campaign, it was all very close at the bottom of the Premier League. Saints were bottom, but they were also only 6 points off Fulham in 11th. They’d also gained a 1-1 draw with Man City in the final game before the break for the Winter World Cup.
The club had £23m to work with and a decent squad led by the talents of James Ward-Prowse. Although it was probably a little light on quality, especially in attacking areas, and a lack of squad depth with just 19 first-team players. But there was little time for Big Sam to focus on transfer targets as the games came thick and fast, starting by a trip to Wolves the day after his appointment. And with that in mind, he had very few options with the limited players available, which saw him cobble together a narrow 4-3-1-2 that would rely on the full-backs and possibly Stuart Armstrong from the mezzala role for width.
Straight Into Big Premier League Games
Big Sam got a solid start as Armstrong scored inside 6 minutes at 16th-place Wolves. But a leaky defence eventually buckled in injury time and they had to settle for a point that lifted Saints to 18th. The new manager’s first home game was on New Year’s Eve against 12th-place Leicester and a few days on the training ground worked a treat, delivering a thumping 4-0 victory. But it was far less comfortable than it sounded as they relied on Ward-Prowse set-pieces for two goals for Duje Caleta-Car and Che Adams, along with a Roméo Lavia screamer and a late strike by player of the match Armstrong.
Two days after that big win, Saints were on the road at West Ham and Tino Livramento made his debut. West Ham had Kehrer sent off 11 minutes in and Saints seized on their opportunity to race into a 3-0 lead through Armstrong, Ward-Prowse and Caleta-Car. They somehow allowed West Ham back into it with 2 goals in 4 minutes but held on for another huge 3 points. And after 3 games in charge, Big Sam had lifted Saints to 13th in the table but still very much in the relegation battle.
January Transfer Window
Big Sam brought in additional funds by selling Moussa Djenepo to Spartak for £4.9m, Moi Elyounoussi to Almeria for £675k and unhappy Lyanco to Zenit for £7.75m. Then bottom of the league Everton deemed it wise to spend £15.75m on Adam Armstrong, and Allardyce used £700k of that to release Theo Walcott.
He turned to loans to boost the squad, starting with midfielder Douglas Luiz arriving from Aston Villa for 6 months. He then bolstered a light strikeforce with two dubious signings in Enes Unal and much-needed experience in 36-year-old Radamel Falcao – who’s surprisingly good despite a lack of pace. But the best signing may be midfield playmaker Yacine Adli from Milan.
Elsewhere, Wolves signed Gerard Piqué for £2.6m, Spurs spent £52m on Andre Silva, Newcastle bought Andre Onana for £34m and Man City shelled out £74m too much on Ousmane Dembele.
More Crunch League Games
The first home game of 2023 saw a trip from 16th-place Fulham, who scored early through Mitrovic. But Saints equalised through Adams’ 10th goal of the season then Mohammed Salisu got sent off and they hung on for a point.
The new signings were available for a trip to Leeds and two of them scored to seal a vital three points. The game looked to be drifting to a 0-0 but Unal came off the bench to score a debut goal on 79 minutes then Luiz hit a second before a late Leeds consolation. And that moved Saints 4 points clear of the drop zone. But Big Sam’s manager bounce unsurprisingly ended at home to leaders Liverpool, who scored early, dominated with 25 shots to 6 and won 3-1.
Two much more important games followed, starting at overperforming Nottingham Forest where Adams’ first half strike and a resolute defensive effort earned a huge 1-0 win. Three days later, West Ham came to town and led through Scamacca but a Ward-Prowse strike earned a point to lift his side to 11th in the table.
A Potentially Tricky Spell
A tough spell began with a trip to Man UFC and a 5-0 battering before a 0-0 at home to Newcastle, with one of our favourites Gavin Bazunu earning player of the match, and a surprise 3-1 win at Leicester led by an Unal brace and a late Adams strike. The partnership of Unal and Adams was looking tasty as both scored again in a 2-1 win at home to Wolves that took Saints to 35 points. And surely now they were virtually safe with 10 games remaining.
And that was lucky as they got thumped 5-0 at Man City then lost 3-1 at home to Villa, for whom former Saint Ings opened the scoring. But they recovered at home to Palace as Adams and a late Falcao penalty, his first goal for the club, sealed a 2-0 victory. And a 1-0 loss at Brentford left them on 38 points and 12 clear of the relegation zone with 6 games remaining.
FA Cup Run?
Away from the league, Saints had progressed all the way to the FA Cup quarter-finals. Adams scored in a 1-0 win over Norwich in round three and a 2-0 win over Preston in round four, then scored twice in a 4-1 thumping of Watford in round five. And a relatively OK quarter-final draw took them to West Ham. The two teams shared an incredible 45 shots but only scored two of them as Bowen scored early and Unal equalised half an hour later. That took them to penalties and Bazunu was the hero with two saves as his teammates scored all 4. So Big Sam was taking Saints to Wembley!
That teed up a semi against Spurs while Liverpool and Man UFC played off in the other. Spurs took the lead just before the half hour but Ward-Prowse responded with a delicious free-kick. But Spurs regained the lead just after the break and finished Saints off late on as they pushed for an equaliser.
Survival In The Bag?
The semi-final defeat was followed by tough games as Saints lost 1-0 at Arsenal, 2-0 at home to Chelsea and 1-0 at Spurs to Hojbjerg’s 86th-minute goal – which is just classic FM. But nevertheless, an entertaining 2-2 at home to Everton mathematically secured survival, which triggered £3m in survival bonuses, which seemed absolute nonsense to Big Sam. The season rounded out with another 2-2 at Bournemouth and a 3-1 win at home to already relegated Brighton on the final day.
Saints finished in a solid 13th place, winning 11 and losing 17, and scoring 44 but conceding 60. But Big Sam’s here was very much done. Elsewhere, Liverpool won the title on the final day, Everton narrowly avoided relegation and Forest went down despite being 9th after 22 games!
Adams finished the campaign with an impressive 20 goals in 44 games, followed by Unal bagging 9 in 21. While Ward-Prowse topped the assists with 12 followed by Adams’ 7 and Kyle Walker-Peters’ 6.
The first season of Bottom At Christmas had been a huge success, with Southampton avoiding relegation by a comfortable 10 points. So we may have to take on a bigger challenge next Christmas.
Join us next Wednesday to discover where we end up with the next iteration of Big Sam!