THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and beat your bitter rival to claim glory in the Scottish Premiership and bragging rights in Glasgow.
THE CATCH: The Everton challenge did not end well. Can Iain Macintosh bounce back to build a homegrown empire at Celtic? Or will Alex Stewart’s meddling Moneyballing ways bring silverware to Rangers? The Set Pieces’ money is on an Aberdeen treble…
IAIN: There’s a strange dichotomy to my life at Celtic. Week by week, we go into every league game knowing that only victory can be considered a satisfactory outcome. We are, by some distance, the best team in the league. Better even than our old, but presently diminished, rivals Rangers. It is not even enough that we win. We must win well. And yet in Europe, everyone thinks we’re useless twats. We’re regarded as little more than one more hors d’oeuvre for UEFA’s elite to wolf down before the serious stuff starts in the knock-out stage. I cannot hope to turn this around in my first season. But it would at least be nice to put up a bit of fight.
Atletico Madrid played our back nine in the group stage opener and I really don’t want to get tonked again when Basel come to town. But we’re in good form. We beat Rangers, I don’t know if I mentioned that, and we beat St Johnstone in the cup and Aberdeen too. If you take the Atletico game out of the equation, we’ve only conceded three in our last ten. It feels as if we’re actually getting somewhere. The last thing we need is to get brutalised by the fucking Swiss.
Gosh. Well, the win against Rangers was good, but this really was something else. We didn’t give Basel a kick. Had we not missed an early penalty, Scott Sinclair might have wrapped up a hat-trick inside 19 minutes. Had we not had a goal disallowed, and rather contentiously I must say, we could have been four up before the break.
Every component seems to be clicking all of a sudden. We look exactly the sort of team I want us to be and not the team we were back at the start of the season when I was crying my eyes out in a Sunderland Travelodge. Alternatively, it could be that Basle are just a bit shit. But I don’t want to accept that as possibility. I’m far happier with the idea that we might be getting good.
ALEX: Changing tactics so dramatically is always a bit of a heart-in-mouth moment, especially in the unforgiving cauldron of the Scottish Premiership where terms like ala tornante are seen as a bit too fancy dan. Still, with a 5-0 win against Dundee under our belts and having scored the most goals of any side in the league, I feel like my system change was a wise one. Motherwill are next, rocking up at Ibrox with a basic 4-2-3-1 formation.
Before the game, though, I get a knock on the door. It’s Joey Barton, and Joey is, as ever, raging. Why am I not playing him? Slow, aging, angry Joey, my answer to Chopper Brown…well, I explain, Jordan Rossiter is doing very well so perhaps Joey should wait for his chance.
Barton’s reply, with typical diplomacy, is that he’s better than everyone else in the squad and perhaps he should leave if I don’t recognise his value. I suggest that I’d be open to that (think of the wage budget that would free up), but it seems like Barton has been bluffing and was simply trying to force a climb down on my part. You could cut the tension with a knife and, indeed, Iain seems to think that rather literally as he suggests playfully in his next press conference that Barton and I might have ended up settling the discussion in time-honoured Glaswegian fashion.
And so to Motherwell. I retain the catenaccio, of course, with what feels like close to the right side. Poyet is playing well and stays at half-back, with Rossiter and Holt in front of him adding energy and hopefully some creativity. Wallace and Tavernier prowl the flanks, with McKay in space wide right behind in-form Joe Garner, the Premiership player of the month after his hat-trick.
That did not go according to plan. In fact, it went so badly you’d be forgiven for thinking there was no plan.
To be fair, their defence played well, all rating over 7.00. We almost matched them nine shots to ten, with three on target to their four. We averaged 49% possession but passed 565 times for 70% accuracy which, with such a quick style, is not too bad.
Motherwell’s goal came from an inability to clear a corner and the resulting farrago in the box eventually saw dangerman Louis Moult hammer the ball in from two inches out. It’s a shoddy goal to concede but it’s typical of my current level of luck, which is about as low as Joey Barton’s tolerance. Still, we regroup; every game played means greater familiarity with the formation and that can only be a good thing.
IAIN: Now with all the chaos of the opening weeks, I haven’t been able to do the stuff I really like to do. I’ve been too busy staring at the screen in horror and trying not to sweat through my shirt. I really like messing about with set pieces. And while Alex makes his way to the office for his date with Motherwell, I’ve got a bit of time to tinker.
I note with interest that Partick Thistle’s tallest player is just 6ft1 and that he stands at the far post when defending corners. The guys at the near post are shorter. So if I send Nir Bitton (6ft4) and Jozo Simunovic (6ft3) to the near post and swing the ball in there, while Leigh Griffiths and Erik Sviatchenko make decoy runs at the far post *and* while Kieran Tierney pretends to offer a short option thus taking another man with him over there…we should have a clear advantage. I’m quite excited to see how this pans out.
Yeah…we had six corners and not one of them came to anything. Scott Sinclair kept slamming them in so low that Ronnie Corbett could have headed them away. Oh well. It was a strange sort of game. We never looked vulnerable, we never allowed them even a single shot on target, and yet we couldn’t make the breakthrough until midway through the second half.
Tomas Cerny made some wonderful stops in the opening exchanges, while Sinclair and Callum McGregor seemed determined to drive his save-count through the roof by repeatedly tapping it gently into his hands whenever they had a sight of goal. Thistle had played a high line in their last game, but they didn’t seem so keen to push up against us for some reason and for a while I wondered if we’d ever score.
But I should have had faith. James Forrest, cementing his place ahead of Patrick Roberts, played a lovely cut-back for Sinclair to finally convert and, as the clock ran out, substitute Moussa Dembele set up Chopper Brown for a second. Brown, by the way, hasn’t been so much as booked since his third red card drove me to the drinks globe. And he’s scored higher than a 7.4 in every league game.
And there’s a nice bit of news from the FA, too. Very well deserved, I’m sure you’ll agree.
ALEX: Next we travel to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, whose 4-4-2 is basic football at its finest. It’s less a contrast of styles and more a wholly different game.
I make changes, moving Senderos to sweeper and pushing McCrorie forwards into the centre-back line. Poyet becomes a deep lying playmaker, a more natural fit for him, and Matt Crooks replaces Jason Holt after a decent turn off the bench against Motherwell. Danny Wilson threatened to make a return after weeks on the sidelines with injury, only to injure himself once more in the weights room.
Despite having 14 for natural fitness, Wilson seems incapable of stringing together more than three days out of the treatment room and I blame him for a large part of my woes. He is my only decent defender, can play sweeper, and would go some way to ameliorating the damage done by having to field Senderos and Kiernan.
The other McCrorie keeps his place in goal but only just – I drop him and then reinstate him just as I’m about to submit my team, largely because I want to keep the faith and because if he starts to realise his potential anytime soon, he could be the best keeper in the league.
You know what? I give up. Fifteen shots, four on target, 52% possession and 74% passing accuracy, and somehow we lose.
We take the lead after Tavernier sweeps in a lovely direct free-kick from the top of the box and look in complete control, with even Senderos – who finishes on 7.00 in an emphatic endorsement of my positional switch – dominating the aerial battles.
And then, with about 15 minutes to go, Liam Polworth hammers in a shot from the edge of the box that evades the outstretched hand of McCrorie. Things go from bad to worse when Tavernier goes off with an injury and, having made all three substitutions (with Macheda on for Garner, Aidan Wilson on for McCrorie 2, and Forrester replacing Crooks), we have to finish with ten men in a 4-1-2-1-1 formation.
I go to contain, desperately try to waste time and then, at the death, in extra-time – because that’s how this game kicks you in the bollocks when you’re already down – Lonsana Doumbouya gets into a foot race with Senderos chasing a through ball. While Doumbouya is slow, Senderos is fucking glacial, and the striker gets clear and slides the ball under McCrorie. We’ve conceded two in just under 20 minutes from being 1-0 up, collapsing like a sucker-punched drunk.
Positives: we created a lot and should have put the game to bed before everything went drastically south; the formation is working, whatever the results might say, and Crooks and McCrorie 2 are developing nicely.
Negatives: we keep losing, and McCrorie 1 is getting dropped. Bollocks to youth development when you’re in the trenches, I’m afraid. With Tavernier injured, Lee Hodson will come in, which is fine, but we will miss his dead ball ability. Having said all that, I really do believe that this team is heading in the right direction. I just pray I get the time to take the journey with them. Because I can feel the board, and not just Barton, sharpening their knives…
IAIN: I’ve been worried about the Hearts game for a while. Alex keeps telling me not to be so silly and that if I’d like to consider his problems for some perspective, I’m very welcome to cast my eye over Philippe Senderos. But that would only upset me. I need to focus.
St Johnstone continue to lead the way in the league, but when you look closely at the teams in this league, I think Hearts are the most dangerous. I’ve been scouting young Callum Paterson for a while and I’m not sure there’s a better right-back in the division, while Ali Ozturk is one of the best centre-backs. I recently watched Connor Sammon give Alex’s Rangers all sorts of problems too. Now ordinarily, Celtic shouldn’t have anything to worry about here, but there are some worrying signs to consider. First of all, I’m the Celtic manager. Secondly, we’ve just had an international week and it’s created a few issues.
Kieran Tierney is pooped and gratefully accepts my offer of a rest while Jozo Simunovic is at 81% and can’t possibly be risked. Leigh Griffiths scored his first ever goal for Scotland this week, but when I congratulated him he went all weird, saying that I was putting pressure on him. His morale plummeted. I’m happy to bring in Emilio Izaguirre for Tierney, but less convinced by the claims of Dedryck Boyata or Kolo Toure for a centre-back spot. I opt for Kolo because I’ve just noticed that I’m paying him £25,000 a week and it might be nice to get a bit of value for money.
I always like to look for positives, so let’s start by doing that: Kolo Toure is not allowed to play for the first team anymore and it’s a positive that we learned that lesson without losing a game. I’ll put up with a lot, but I will not accept a defender being stripped for pace by an injured Connor Sammon. Kolo was hooked at the end of a mercifully goalless first half and can spend the build up to January 1 thinking about what he’s done.
My coaches kept telling me that Griffiths was being cocky in the warm-up and his unerring ability to hit the goalkeeper from any position did for him. Off he came at the break too. We were playing conservative football. We were slow and dull. I do not want Celtic to be slow and dull. I bollocked them to within an inch of their lives, removed the tiring Nir Bitton for Kris Ajer and sent them back out, all my substitutions used up.
Oddly, and possibly for the first time ever, this did not immediately result in a Celtic injury. Indeed, we contrived to take the lead through Izaguirre. But we could not hold onto it and, in all honesty, we did not deserve to hold onto it. We could have won, but we could have lost too. The changes to the team had cost us our balance. In the circumstances, I will take a point. Not least because St Johnstone finally lost a game. We are, for the first time all season, top of the table.
I think I speak for everyone with Celtic sympathies when I say…thank fuck for that.
Football Manager is widely available for download, but you know that already because you’ve bought it already. If you want to replicate this challenge, we’re using the release day database with six full leagues (Scotland, England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).