FM17 Project: Episode 26 (February ’18)

THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and…well…just try as hard as you can, eh? 

THE CATCH: This game is really difficult. Alex Stewart has already washed his hands of Liverpool and, while the first season brought a Champions League semi-final and a third place finish for Arsenal, it wasn’t exactly straight-forward. 

Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6Episode 7Episode 8Episode 9Episode 10Episode 11Episode 12Episode 13Episode 14Episode 15Episode 16Episode 17Episode 18Episode 19Episode 20Episode 21; Episode 22 Episode 23Episode 24; Episode 25

Ahead of what will be a most testing week, I delve into the numbers to check that everything looks right.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that, not only do we lead the way for goals scored from corners (seven), but we haven’t conceded a single goal from a set-piece all season. It would be nice if there was a table for ‘goals scored shortly after defending a set-piece’ because we’re really good at that.

Unfortunately, the crossing stats are hideous. Last season we completed more crosses than anyone else in the league, nearly 100 more crosses than our closest rival. This season we’re not even top of the charts. We’re second, behind West Ham, and a shocking 12th for cross completion percentage. For most teams, this would mean nothing, but crossing is what we do. Our entire game is getting it out wide and cutting back low to the multiple runners. And while we now cross it low occasionally, we’re still tossing them in high more often than not. It’s quite frustrating. This never happened at Celtic.

The truth is that I’m hiding in the stats lab because I’m nervous about this month. We’ve got three winnable league games that could extend our lead at the top of the table, a Champions League game and a cup final. In four weeks, I could be rolling about on the office floor, delirious with joy, or I could be propping up the bar over the road, texting my wife to say that ‘something’s happened at work’ and I’m going to be really late.

We visit Norwich first, who play in the sort of 4-2-3-1 that usually leaves gaps for the Gooner Protocol. We’re missing a few players, both Theo Walcott (rest of the season) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (one week) are absent, which is a concern because neither Alex Iwobi nor Demarai Gray has played particularly well of late. I’ve rejigged my corners, because you have to keep ‘em guessing, but that aside, it’s business as usual. Manchester United drew and Tottenham managed to lose at home to Swansea, so a win here could really do me a favour.

Norwich denied me all three points earlier this season and they were dead set on frustrating me again. We had two serious problems here. Firstly, that John Ruddy has transformed into Lev Yashin, and secondly, that Alvaro Negredo was bullying our defenders. It was his impetuous backheel that allowed Steven Naismith to rifle home an early opening goal and he continued to give me palpitations throughout. Our task was made even more difficult when Aaron Ramsey and Virgil van Dijk were both injured. Ramsey won’t be back until late March.

But as I may have mentioned in the past, we have a plan. Just before the half hour, it pays dividends. Gray, challenged before the game to improve, wins the ball out right and fires in a *low* cross to the near post that Alexis Sanchez converts. Ten minutes later, Calum Chambers meep-meeps up the right flank and fires in a *low* cross to the near post that Alexis Sanchez converts.

Thanks to Ruddy, we can’t get the third, blood pressure-reducing goal until injury time when Sanchez seals another hat-trick with a well-struck penalty. But it’s enough to know that this team has new found resilience. We’ll need that.

I’m still angry about what Leicester did to us earlier this season. We outplayed them, we couldn’t score against them and then they hit a winner against the run of play in injury time to beat us. They topped the table after that and they’re still in fifth place even now.

I make a point of telling the press that we’ll have to be careful here, a statement that goes down like a lead pigeon with Petr Cech. But it seems a bit much to drop him for his failure to appreciate my cautious nature. He can stay, for now. We make just one change for this. Andre Gomes for the injured Ramsey.

I feel sick. I actually feel very sick. Having told my players to avenge themselves of the defeat at the King Power Stadium, I’m heartened by their willingness to fight for every ball. We batter the Foxes in the first half, making 15 chances, three of which are clear cut shiny chances. But we only take one. Sanchez picks up a head injury after seven minutes and, watching his little frame dash around underneath a giant bandage, missing shot after shot, I consider taking him off. Moments later, Andre Gomes plays a through ball and Sanchez larrups it past Schmiechel. Okay, you can stay on.

But we can’t get a second. Not wanting to dishearten them with talk of complacency, I congratulate the players for their efforts. But in the Leicester dressing room, Ernesto Valverde is tearing strips off his side. And they react brilliantly.

Having made those 15 chances before the break, we make just two in the next half an hour. Sanchez is replaced by Sandro, but Leicester run at us and I don’t like it. When they somehow contrive to miss an open goal on 75 minutes, I have to take action.

We shelter in the Castle Protocol, praying for full time. But Leicester overstretch themselves trying to equalise and our ball hogging opens up more space than our counter-attacks ever did. Gomes heads home from a Wilshere free-kick for a second and Sandro scores an exquisite third. It gives us a margin of victory that we don’t even nearly deserve, but I don’t care. I just need to change my shirt.

Elsewhere, Manchester United win, but Spurs draw and Chelsea get walloped 0-4 by Crystal Palace. My sphincter has developed its own pulse.

We’ll have to play Atletico Madrid without Alexis Sanchez, which is hardly ideal. His head wound hasn’t cleared up yet. But I’m very pleased with Sandro. He’s proved himself utterly worthy of a place in this team, scoring 15 goals in 14 starts (and a lot of substitute appearances) across all competitions. It’s not easy dropping in and out of the team, so I’m delighted for him. I never got these sort of performances out of Danny Welbeck.

We are past the period of rotation now. There’s no FA Cup and the next League Cup game is the final. From here on in, the best team plays in every game and the only way you drop out of the team is if you get injured or your fitness goes underneath 90%. Now, let’s go and see if we can make giant strides in Europe.

Well, that’s not helpful. At the highest level of European football, mistakes will fuck you. So it doesn’t help our cause for Laurent Koscielny to make five in the first 30 minutes alone. He loses Diego Godin for the first, mis-times a header to allow Kevin Gamiero to score a second and though he plays no part in the third, a penalty that the players felt was particularly harsh, I deem it best for all concerned to withdraw him early.

We could still have got something out of the game, especially after Mohamed Elneny briefly put us back on level terms from the spot. We made piles of chances, but the shots just kept flashing past the post. With ten minutes to go, I brought on Sanchez in the hope that he might come up with one moment of magic, which he did, only to see it cancelled out by a moment of magic from Jan Oblak. We didn’t play badly. But there you go. It makes our task in the second leg a lot harder, though not impossible. But to be honest with you, I’d be more upset if we played badly and lost 1-0.

What we have to be careful of now is morale. We cannot let one unfortunate result undo all the good work this season. We need to go and beat Everton and take a step closer to the league title. It is, after all, February and we know what happens to Arsenal in February.

And two days before the game, we lose Virgil van Dijk for two months to a dislocated shoulder. This is disastrous timing. Shkodran Mustafi has just had a massive tantrum about a lack of first-team football and his morale has crashed. Laurent Koscielny just had a stinker on the telly in front of everyone. And Ben Sheaf, while showing lots of promise, probably isn’t ready to provide the foundations to a title challenge.

This is even worse because I want to play Gianluigi Donnarumma here, so that he’s not cold for the League Cup final. I’d also noted with interest that Calum Chambers is still preoccupied by Manchester City’s interest, and was planning to replace him with Danilo. And this is on top of the injury to Andre Gomes. I guess you could argue that a shake-up is required after a disappointing result, but I didn’t want to shake them up this much.

I can’t recall ever having felt so relieved. This had every ingredient for the surprise defeat. Injuries all over the squad, low morale of key players, a change of goalkeeper, a bad result in Europe three days before and a cup final three days afterwards. But we came through. And we came through because of the Gooner Protocol.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, back in the side for the first time in ages, played a low cross for Sanchez to score in the 31st minute and then Alex Iwobi plated a low cross for Adrien Rabiot to score in the 37th minute. It really is that simple. Get ball, run with ball, get to byline, cut ball back on the ground and score. Well, it’s that simple when you’ve got really quick wingers who can cross and a multitude of players scampering up to support the counter-attack. Why have they wasted half a season tossing crosses into the air?

There’s only one moment of panic and that’s when Cazorla’s 44th minute penalty is saved. Saving a penalty on the stroke of half time is like scoring a goal on the stroke of half time and I’m terrified that Everton will respond accordingly. So terrified, in fact, that I put them in Castle Protocol for the entire second half. We win. We actually hit the woodwork three times and should win by more, but at this stage of the season, I only care about the win.

And so to Wembley for my first shot at silverware as Arsenal manager. We’re not in ideal shape, what with multiple injuries, mixed morale and distracted players, but we’ll do the best we can. We haven’t beaten City in five previous meetings, but I’m not too concerned. We always seem to be undone by a vengeful Serge Gnabry. That said, we lost to a last minute goal after playing most of the first match with ten men (thank you, Jonas Olsson) we lost earlier this season by one goal in a fairly tight game and we lost in the cup when I tossed it off. I back my boys.

I am going back to my old, whack it to the back of the box corners though, because we haven’t scored with the new set-up and I’m getting irritated with always hitting the shins of the man on the near post. But aside that from that, we’ll treat it as any other game. Apart from the fact that it’s at Wembley. And everyone is watching. And there’s a weird three-handled trophy at stake. And I really need some kind of silverware to legitimise my reign because two pot-less seasons would reflect poorly on me. And now I need to poo.

I have to credit Rafa Benitez, he had the balls to do what I would not. He picked a reserve side for a cup final. It shows great faith in the young players at his club and an admirable desire to build something lasting. Obviously, we battered them from the first whistle. Joe Hart made a string of fine saves, most impressively from Eliaquim Mangala when the hapless centre-back got on the end of one of our low crosses and nearly did the job for us. It was goalless at half time, but I’m not sure how.

But then it all went wrong. Danilo Pereira lofted a big ball out of City’s half and Kelechi Iheanacho turned Koscielny inside out. One on one with Donnarumma, he made no mistake. That wasn’t in the script. Wasting no time whatsoever, I switched to Klopp Protocol, pushing up the pitch and intensifying the pressure. We barely made a chance of note until I started to get desperate and withdrew Mohamed Elneny for Sandro and a dangerous shift to two up front. But it paid dividends. Wilshere played a neat ball and supersub Sandro scored from the tightest of angles.

Now it was all Arsenal. We piled forward, making chance after chance after chance. But still they held out, still Hart refused to be beaten. And so to extra time.

The pattern of pressure continued. And so it should with two strikers and such attacking tactics. And then, five minutes into the first period of extra time, we took our reward. Sanchez was hauled down in the box and the referee pointed to the spot. Cazorla missed one at Everton, but he wasn’t on the pitch today. Today, 27 goal (it’s only February!) Sanchez was on hand to do what needed to be done.

He didn’t score…

Joe Hart leapt across to his right and palmed the kick away. Then City won a free-kick on the edge of our box. Up stepped Gnabry and he drove it hard into the wall. Or more specifically, into the face of Jack Wilshere. Donnarumma had gone one way, the deflection saw the ball loop the other way. City were leading. And for all the pressure we continued to put on them, that’s the way it ended.

I said all the right things after the game. I congratulated Benitez, I praised his players, I said I was proud of my boys regardless and that they were just unlucky. And then I left the office and went to the pub. Don’t wait up, darling. You don’t want to see me like this.

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; HoffenheimHow To Get Better At FM17; Back To School In FM17.

FM17 Project: Episode 26 (February ’18)
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