THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and win silverware with Everton.
THE CATCH: Nine seasons of CM01/02 exposed your mental frailties to a surprisingly wide audience. And this game is much, much more difficult. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?
If I’ve learned anything from the last three versions of Football Manager, it is this: It only takes one domino to wobble and the whole bleeding lot goes down. As it is in real life, so it has become on the laptop. You can spend hours and hours drawing your intricately laid plans together, but if one defender switches off at a set-piece for one moment, if one early goal unsettles your players, if one first game goes horrible, if one first month ends without a win…it doesn’t take much to start that miserable chain reaction.
And so you find me one day before the opening game of the season giving serious thought to the idea of taking up smoking again. Because there’s no easy start for Everton this year. There’s Manchester City and Pep Guardiola and all of their superstars. And we are riddled with injuries. I’ve got Gareth Barry at left-back because Leighton Baines is crocked and Bryan Oviedo is so badly injured that I might have to have him put down. I’ve got Mason Holgate at right-back because I haven’t even seen Seamus Coleman in shorts, let alone in a game and my predecessor sent all the promising young right-backs out on loan. There’s no Maarten Stekelenburg and no James McCarthy. But I think I can still find a way to prevail.
We learned during pre-season that a two-man midfield is unwise. We need all three. Idrissa Gueye can drop back, Tom Cleverley can dictate the play (stop laughing) and Ross Barkley can bomb up and down. We’ll have pace and trickery on the flanks with Yannick Bolasie and Gerard ‘the snake’ Deulofeu, up against the team he tried to join last month. Then we’ve got Romelu Lukaku as a supporting target man, holding up the ball when we break and drawing everyone else in. When you say it like that, it all seems pretty positive. But there’s no more time to prepare now. This is it. This is the really real world.
You know what? That was not too shabby. I am torn between frustration that we didn’t get anything and pride that we so nearly did. From the first whistle, it was one way traffic. And bewilderingly, that traffic was speeding from our half to theirs. Claudio Bravo was forced to make a number of fine saves and Lukaku bounced one first half effort off the post. It really was something of a shame that City eventually found their feet and opened the scoring after 32 minutes, Leroy Sane getting above Gareth Barry and heading in. I would certainly like to know why four of my players were drawn so easily to the other side of the pitch…
Guardiola’s side were much better after that. Fernando in particular, began to dominate. I don’t think any of us expected that to be the case. But my lot continued to push on and look for an equaliser. With a little more composure, they might have got one. It wasn’t that we were missing chances, it wasn’t that the final ball was missing, it was one pass before that.
Every time there was a chance to split their defence, we ruined it. Bolasie and Deulofeu kept running straight into their markers. Passes weren’t played at the optimum time. But we were okay. Had we drawn, Guardiola could have had no complaints. But we lost. And so Guardiola spent much of the press conference shaking his head wearily at journalists who tried to goad him into saying that the Premier League was the toughest league of all.
And so we move on to Bournemouth, swiftly and without regret. And yet for whatever pride I feel in that first performance, there is anxiety for the second one. Because our third game is away at Arsenal. So if we don’t beat Eddie Howe’s side, if we actually lose to Eddie Howe’s side, there’s a serious chance that I’ll end the month on the bottom of the table with no points. And then how will I feel about all those hours on a train mapping out individual training routines for the U18 side?
But I have advantages. This is literally my job. And so I have the time to do this properly. I make a cup of tea and I watch Bournemouth’s 2-3 defeat at Old Trafford. They play a 4-4-2 and with Jack Wilshere pushing forward, so I’m definitely sticking with three in the middle. They also get down the right more often than not, particularly through Adam Smith, so I’m going to stick to the counter mentality that plays the ball out quickly and I’m going to direct our operations through Yannick Bolasie on our left.
Most interestingly, and I realise that I’m playing fast and loose with the definition of the word ‘interestingly’, they have a very odd strategy for dealing with corners. Centre-backs Simon Francis and Steve Cook go all the way out to meet Eric Bailly and Daley Blind outside the box. It’s Harry Arter, Nathan Ake and Callum Wilson who take up near post duties and not one of them is taller than six foot. So my plan is to move my big centre-backs to the back of the box as a decoy and load up the near post area with Gareth Barry (6ft), Yannick Bolasie (6ft1) and Romelu Lukaku (6ft3). We’ll swing the ball in to the near post and hope to clean up. We have just one minor problem. Holgate is injured now as well, so it’s Jonjo Kenny who plays at right-back, a young man that my coaches describe as, “very well suited to SkyBet League Two football.”
I’ve worked in this office for nearly two years and I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time sitting on the floor, rocking backwards and forwards, pausing only to bury my face in my hands and howl in fear.
This game really couldn’t have started any better. We battered Bournemouth, breaking repeatedly through Bolasie and earning an 11th minute penalty that was calmly dispatched by Lukaku. Howe had altered his marking ever so slightly at corners, getting Steve Cook to mark Lukaku, a move that ruined my efforts to clear the near post area of their tall players. Lukaku was duly redeployed to the back post and he took Cook with him. Minutes later, we won a corner, sent it to the near post, Deulofeu of all people nodded it up to the far post and Lukaku headed it home. 2-0 after 22 minutes. And it should have been four by the break, with the woodwork twice coming to Bournemouth’s aid.
Now, I don’t know what Howe said to his players at half-time, but if he wouldn’t mind sharing it with the rest of the class, that would be just peachy. In the second half, Bournemouth played like Barcelona. Having created only a handful of chances in the first period, they made hatfuls in the second. And hats are much bigger than hands.
I did everything I could to stem the flow. I tried to take the sting out of the game by switching to control and retaining possession. It didn’t work. I dropped the wide attackers back to fill the space. No good. I went to defensive, Bournemouth barely noticed. I made changes, but they didn’t help. Harry Arter scored on the hour mark and the last 30 minutes were an ordeal that left me damp-backed and twitchy, swearing like an Essex grandmother. We survived. I do not know how, but we survived.
Three points are on the board, but my nerves are absolutely shredded. What a perfect time to play a lower league team in the cup. Naturally, given our lack of European commitments and my mortal fear of getting sacked, we’ll be going all out for the League Cup. It’s the competition that saved me once before. Perhaps it can save me again.
There are a number of things about Blackburn that immediately catch the eye. Firstly, they’ve been beaten in every game they’ve played. Secondly, they play a very high line of defence. Thirdly, they’re not very quick at the back. Those factors in combination may explain why they keep losing. That, in theory at least, should make the game plan simple. We’ll play counter, even though we’re at home, because we want sit deeper and draw them out. We’ll up the tempo, make the passing direct, turn Lukaku into an attacking forward, make the widemen attacking rather than supportive, and look to hammer Rovers with a series of brutal punches to the face.
Ideally, I’d like to have the full-backs pushing up in support, but neither of them have any pace. They’ll have to stay at home, but at least that should safeguard against the sort of response that left me on the verge of tears at Bournemouth. To give the night an extra frission, reserve goalkeeper Connor Hunt is injured. That means I’ll have my fourth choice goalkeeper on the bench. If Joel Robles gets injured, we’re in serious trouble.
Annoyingly, Blackburn choose this moment to rip up their tactics and start again. They do not push up, they do not leave space. They sit very deep with a massed midfield and so my initial plan to sit very deep and launch counter-attacks is scrapped after ten minutes of cursing Owen Coyle for his unsporting common sense. But when we start to push forward, controlling possession and moving freely, the chances come quickly.
Of course, it would be nice if we could put any of them on target. Barkley gives us a more than deserved lead just before half time, but it isn’t until injury time that Bolasie doubles the advantage. Blackburn are gutsy and stubborn, but this is a comfortable experience, one that offers a little more reassurance than what happened at Bournemouth. We progress to the next round.
We end the month with a trip to Arsenal, which again, is not what I’d prefer. The Gunners have had a mixed start. They overcame champions Leicester, but they were beaten 2-0 by Manchester City and, to tell you the truth, they were seriously outplayed.
Obviously, this being Arsene Wenger, they play a 4-2-3-1 and, if the City game I watched is anything to go by, it will be a high line and a quick attack. So once again, we’re going counter, only this time we’ll have the wide men pulled back a little and Lukaku harrassing the defence while everyone else supports him. Curiously, Arsenal also don’t have a single defender on the near post for corners taller than 6ft. So we’ll be wheeling out that set-piece routine again. We’ve also got one for defending corners that brings Lukaku back to defend and creates a chain of quick players for the break. It almost brought a goal against Blackburn. If it brings one here, I’ll probably cry with relief. Also, because it’s Arsenal, we’ll press them and get stuck in. It would be rude not to.
Obviously, we’re still struggling for numbers. Leighton Baines is back, but he’s not match fit and given that Oviedo isn’t expected back until February, it’s probably best if we go easy on him. So, hopefully for the final time, we have third choice full-backs. We’re also short in midfield, so Darron Gibson will start and I’ve promoted Liam Walsh from the U23s to replace him as and when Gibson falters. If I had Baines and Coleman supporting the counter attacks, if I had McCarthy and Cleverley helping Barkley to push up…well, I’d feel a lot better about this. But such is life. We must accept our fate.
We are beaten like a Dickensian child protagonist. Arsenal are in front after 15 minutes and two up before half time. They make 26 chances with 14 on target and, call me a perfectionist if you will, but I think that’s too many.
I’m a little perturbed to discover that my players all seem to hate me. I realise that I’m not the manager they expected and that they were probably, on balance, quite happy with Ronald Koeman. He has proven success as a manager and was one of the top footballers of his generation, while I’m a two-bit peripatetic internet hack who can’t do more than three keepie-ups. I get that. I respect that. But if they’d just give me a chance. I mean, just….fuck you, Yannick Bolasie.
And yet it’s not all bad. We make only six chances ourselves, but two of them are excellent. Quite how Ross Barkley misses when the ball is presented to him inside the area and in significant space…well, I used some indoor language at that point, I can tell you.
We’re still blowing good chances on the counter. The pathway is open, they know what they’re trying to do, it’s just that there’s a very clear, discernible moment when they run out of talent. I might need to lower the emphasis on set pieces and get them to work on attacking movement before the next game. I might need to have one of them shot pour encourager les autres. I think the best that can be said about this game is that it could have been worse. It could have been one of those shellackings that topples the dominoes. But we kept our dignity.
So, what did we learn? We learned that we’re neither as bad as I feared nor as good as I hoped. We learned that we can’t quite compete with the elite when we’ve got third choice full-backs. We’ve confirmed that three in the middle is better than two and we can see that using Lukaku as an attacking force rather than a pivot for everyone else is probably more helpful. With points on the board and defeats only in games we were not expected to win, there’s no reason to panic. But it would be nice to see a little more in the way of ‘being good at football.’
For that, we shall have to wait until September where games against Stoke, Middlesbrough and Southampton await. If we can’t take at least five points from those matches, then I’ll be terrified. As for now, I’m just anxious. And that’s a considerable improvement.
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 five full leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).