THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and beat your bitter rival to establish Arsenal or Liverpool as the dominant force in English football once more.
IAIN: It’s funny what a bit of distance can do for your spirits. After a week away in New York City, I’m refreshed and revitalised, ready to kick on and finish the season. And I’m feeling good about it. After all, I’m doing pretty well, aren’t I?
No. Apparently, I am not. My good mood evaporates the instant I familiarise myself with my recent results. I’ve won just a single game from my last seven. It seems that Arsenal are very good at counter-attacking (Cobra Protocol) and quite proficient at protecting a lead when I allow them to do so (Castle Protocol) but as yet we haven’t developed anything for grabbing other teams by the nads and twisting.
That said, given that we are away at Chelsea, I shouldn’t think that will be a priority. I’ll keep with this asymmetric Cobra for now, but I’m replacing Mesut Ozil with Santi Cazorla because I hate Ozil so much right now.
It’s so obvious that we’re about to score that I actually pause the game show the screen to Alex, highlight Alexis Sanchez on the wing, highlight my four oncoming attackers, explain how the Chilean is going to cut the ball back low across the box and then press play to watch it all unfold. As Olivier Giroud tucks the ball away, I consider that this may be exactly how the Smugintosh thing got going.
Chelsea equalise within moments. Of course they do. But it’s ok. We retake the lead from the kick off through Sanchez and Adrien Rabiot is kind enough to make it 3-1 just before the hour. That’s enough of a lead for me to shut the game down with Castle Protocol and when Sanchez adds another with five minutes to go, I’m really quite happy about it all. With an eye on fixtures congestion, I swap him for Danny Welbeck, Chelsea score twice in quick succession and when David Luiz heads just past the post in injury time I very nearly soil myself.
ALEX: The month begins with a Merseyside derby. Recent results have been less than spectacular, the 6-0 West Ham win aside, and so this game is crucial both for getting back into our groove, and smashing Everton (less because of the historical rivalry, and more because I can’t help but associate the Toffees with Macintosh).
I decide to recall Can and move Wijnaldum to the bench – the German has resolved his issues and is quite good, or at least the highest rating of my deep-lying playmaker options so far, and it makes sense now he’s happy again to throw him back into the fray. Unlike certain other players, I don’t nurse grudges to the detriment of my side. We are otherwise unchanged.
It’s a cagey start, but Firmino opens the scoring with a nice goal inside the box. Being a typically tempestuous derby, and knowing how much my whole team relish picking up bookings, you will not be surprised to hear that quite early in the second half I have to bring on Lovren for Matip and Wij for Can due to them both being on yellows.
My concentration is momentarily disturbed as I hear Iain exclaim, “Oh Virgil van Dijk, I want to lick you all over.”
My focus is brought back to the game as we score one of the great counter-attacking goals (that I have seen, on this game): Clyne clears off the line to Firmino, who launches it first time to Origi running through, nay, motoring; he hits the bar with a first time shot, but tucks away the rebound for 2-0. The nippy Belgian then adds a peach of a second after Henderson wins possession near the Everton box and feeds Coutinho, who squares it to Origi for a side-footed finish.
There are a few tense moments as the game comes to a close, but we hold on for an emphatic 3-0 win.
IAIN: Let’s get back to this ‘winning games’ issue we’ve had. This season, we’ve had real problems finishing teams off. We’re fine when we’re counter-attacking, but you don’t necessarily want to do that against, say, Swansea at home.
My latest ‘solution’ is this 4-3-3 that offers high intensity, high tempo, high pressing, ball playing, fluid football. It’s probably best not to use this against good teams because it will open up a lot of space behind us and all that titting about with the ball leaves us very much at home to Doctor Fuckup, but it’s got to be worth a go.
Yes, I think that worked rather nicely. It was something of a slow start as the players adjusted to their new roles and we didn’t make a chance for the first 20 minutes, but when the goals came they came thick and fast. Sanchez (his 30th of the season) and Walcott led the way and Swansea came out for the second half with their hopeful shape replaced by a deep, defensive ‘let’s-try-not-to-get-routed’ sort of midfield. Fine by me. I’m just here for the points. I revert to the Cobra formation, give some of the subs a run out and yet we end up getting three more, including a delightful screamer from Demarai Gray. That’s nine goals in two games. I approve.
ALEX: We have only a few days before the trip to Palace and Selhurst Park is the home of Christian Benteke, all-round Liverpool scourge and scorer of 14 goals this season. And, remarkably, this small window is enough for the good big ‘un to pick up a sports hernia which rules him out for the match (and possibly much of the rest of the season). I am elated: cruel, I know, but that’s football.
Remy will be Benteke’s replacement, my scouts inform me; they also state Palace will play a 5-4-1, which promises a thrilling encounter. Palace beat us 2-1 at home in our previous meeting so, much like the Everton game, we’re taking on a side having lost last time. I see no reason to change a winning team.
After 20 minutes Mane gets a gashed leg and so Origi comes on, earlier than I would have wanted, and takes up the more advanced position with Firmino dropping into the false nine role. We get to half-time without a single highlight; I am moved to check that my settings haven’t somehow changed without me noticing. I blame Allardyce’s tedious, destructive football.
The second half begins with greater purpose and Firmino squuezes a shot past Mandanda, who seems as troubled in the game as he was in real life this season, to give us the breakthrough almost immediately after the break. I bring on Wijnaldum and Kovalenko but try as we might, we can’t score again. Having said that, 10 shots on target and 68% possession make for a pretty solid 1-0.
IAIN: Ordinarily, I’d be quite confident of keeping this run going, but it’s Alex next and his highly impressive Liverpool side. Now Alex knows how I like to play. He knows that I like to sit deep, get it out to the flanks and then clatter up in support of the inevitable low cross cut back into the penalty area.
He also knows that, wounded by so many high profile failures, I tend to be cautious these days. He’ll be fully expecting me to play the Cobra Formation and he’ll have something particularly clever up his sleeve to deal with it, I’m sure. For this reason, I’m going to go with the Klopp Protocol. I eagerly await his panic when the game begins and he realises that all of his anti-Macintosh plans have been for nothing.
ALEX: Next up, the big one: Arsenal, away. Iain, away. And 3rd vs 4th. So yeh, a big game. And, heading into it, we get some terrible news: Clyne twists his knee and I so I am forced to move Gomez up from the U23s – he’s not a natural right-back but he’s as competent in the role as Stewart and he’s seriously quick. We will get less going forwards from him than Clyne, but against Iain’s Arsenal away from home, solidity is more important. Then Can gets an abdominal strain, and so Wij comes back in and Grujic pops back onto the bench. I note that Iain is playing something called the Klopp protocol. This feels personal.
IAIN: The teams are announced. Alex raises one eyebrow. “Klopp Protocol?” he says calmly.
“Oh yes,” I tell him. “And I bet you were expecting the Cobra, eh? I bet you had a special plan for it?”
“To be honest, I just play the same team for every game, mate,” he says, without looking up. “I haven’t made any adjustments.”
I nod silently and turn to the window so that he cannot see my tears. Three minutes later, Roberto Firmino is given the time and space to break my heart asunder. There isn’t another chance in the entire first half.
ALEX: We get no green in the pre-match team-talk. I am worried. But should I have been less so? Firmino bags his 13th league goal of the season after Milner’s pulled-back pass evades everyone, including three Arsenal defenders, and Cech lets his shot squirm in. We take a 1-0 into half-time.
IAIN: I rain hellfire down upon my players at the break. I switch them from control to attacking, I tell Ozil not to bother getting up and I send Gray on his place. There’s a slight delay in rejoining the game when both of the laptops insist that they are waiting for the other player, but when the screen jerks back into life, we see Sanchez wheeling away in celebration. Straight from kick off, Danilo has dashed down the right, his high cross has been headed down by Gray, of all people, and Sanchez has equalised. Alex is not amused.
ALEX: We get lots of green in the half-time talk. I am still worried. There is then a moment of genuine panic, as the game freezes and Iain and I wonder if we have, in fact, lost the previous two matches and this one. The game finally rights itself, only for me to find that Arsenal have equalised. I am so fucking angry with the stupid predictability of this game.
IAIN: The rest of the half, despite my attacking intent, is every bit as dull as the first. With ten minutes to go, I decide to take a different approach. Instead of trying to force them back, I try to lure them forward. I switch to Cobra and drop deeper, inviting them on, knowing that Theo Walcott and Gray are lurking ready to burst into space if they come at me, bro. And they come at me, bro. We win back the ball through substitute Mohamed Elneny, he releases Walcott and after that it’s just a matter of cutting a low cross back to Sanchez. We needed this win. We needed this run. We’re back.
ALEX: Two crosses from Walcott, one nodded back across to Sanchez, one finding the Chilean directly, and we are 2-1 down. Gomez has a shocker, which I guess is understandable but just shows how key the injuries to Clyne and, indeed, Can, were. Life is not fair. Fin.
IAIN: And so to Europe. Our 1-1 draw in Greece wasn’t the best result, but hopefully we can turn it around here. Again, we want to sort this game out quickly and so I give it a bit of Klopp Protocol again. I’ve got Spurs at the weekend, but I can’t afford to lose this and go out early. The only change is the replacement of the cup-tied Danilo with Mathieu Debuchy, who has had so little game time this season that he’s just started his coaching badges.
Well. That really shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was. Theo Walcott gave us an early lead, a lead that our play completely warranted. We battered Olympiakos, firing in chance after chance, but we couldn’t get the second that we so dearly needed. And then, just before half time, disaster. As we pushed up, they hoofed the ball over the halfway line and found Brown Ideye in space. He really is surprisingly good, you know.
Had Rabiot not scored another in first half stoppage time, I might have been more angry. That still left us in a position where one Olympiakos goal could finish us, but given that they weren’t crossing the halfway line, I felt pretty comfortable. Still…we made hard work of that. And we have Juventus in the next round.
IAIN: And so to complete an extraordinarily difficult run of fixtures, we travel to league leaders Tottenham. A win here will put us back in the title race, albeit at the outskirts. Defeat will probably end what can only loosely be described as our challenge.
I’ve tried my best to keep everyrone fit for this, but I don’t think Xhaka is going to make it and, to be honest, it’s not a bad thing given his propensity for kicking people in the air. Elneny comes in for him. It’s also unlikely to be a game for Ozil, so Gray comes in. With all that pace on the flanks we might be able to absorb the pressure and then get them wth the Cobra Protocol.
What a performance. Like a premium kitchen towel, we soaked up everything that Spurs could…erm…spill on us. Petr Cech made a couple of good saves, but was mostly untroubled. The same could not be said for Hugo Lloris, who left the pitch late in the game with an injury having made one absolutely astonishing stop that would have really infuriated me had it not been for Sanchez giving us the lead earlier on.
Virgil van Dijk, purchased through an entirely legitimate and honourable process, was a rock at the back. Spurs kept pushing, but we weren’t yielding. Three points. Three big, big points. And we are right back in this.
ALEX: I am still angry and I note that my Board Confidence has dropped from ‘very pleased’ to merely ‘pleased’ in the wake of this defeat. I want to remind them that we are overachieving, in 3rd place and only two points off the top, but there’s no button for that.
We host Bournemouth next and Clyne is fit again. Can is still injured, so Wij keeps his place. But we are, yes you guessed it, OTHERWISE UNCHANGED.
Ok. So we drew 0-0. We had 35 shots, 14 on target, and Boruc only received a 6.8 rating. So if one of you can explain how the fuck this happens, that would be great. Anyone? No?
We drop to 4th, two behind Arsenal. I’m closing my laptop. I hope I never see any of you again.
Catch up on previous projects here: Everton; Celtic v Rangers; (Revisited); The Pentagon Challenge; Alex Stewart’s FM17 Tactics Guides: Catenaccio; Atletico Madrid; Chelsea 04/05; Brazil; Roma 00/01; Hoffenheim; How To Get Better At FM17; Back To School In FM17.