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: We have a very difficult month ahead of us, with games against Manchester City and Chelsea, so it’s imperative that we avoid any unfortunate slip-ups against teams like Hull. We’ve had enough of those already.
Duly cautious, I opt for the Cobra Protocol, keeping us tight and compact, but ready to break out with rapid counter-attacks down the wings, trying to get to the byline and then slide in low crosses for the oncoming masses. I’m still struggling to find a role for Mesut Ozil, so he can have another crack on the left. If he could be half as effective as Theo Walcott, currently playing the football of his life, that will do me fine.
Hull 1 – 2 Arsenal
I settle in for the first half and watch with pleasure as the coloured bar fills with red and the clocks rolls around. But the clock doesn’t stop. We’re enjoying more than 60% of possession, but we’re not making any decent chances. To my mounting frustration, we reach half time without a single highlight. I make my feelings quite clear in the dressing room and elect to give them ten minutes to remember who they are, what they represent and how I’ve warned them that they can walk back to London if they mess this up. After nine eventless minutes, Hull score.
Now my hand is forced. We go from Cobra Protocol to Grizzly Protocol and Ozil goes into his more familiar attacking midfield role, with Alex Iwobi replacing him on the left. And Iwobi slots home the equaliser shortly afterwards from a low Walcott cross slid in from the byline. Lovely. But though we keep creating chances, our time is running out. I replace Ozil with Olivier Giroud and go with two up front, switching to attacking football. With two minutes to go, Giroud nods on a cross and Alexis Sanchez nabs the winner. We deserved that, but I’d prefer not to have this sort of stress every week.
ALEX: An unbeaten league start, but a loss to Iain in the Cup – we’re solid, but the bragging rights are currently his and this irks me as much as you’d expect. I have four games to contend with this month, while he and his Arsenal squad must play six, which means I could get some leverage on the league table if things go according to plan. The first game of the month is Sunderland at home or, as Iain terms it, a guaranteed three points. Sure, but nothing should be taken for granted in this game.
Just prior to the match, it’s announced that Divock Origi has won the PL Young Player of the Month, and I am fulsome in my praise of him. He has been genuinely good. My selection for Sunderland reflects this, and the return of Kovalenko from injury, as he makes the bench. Origi starts up front as a striker, with Mane and Coutinho behind him, and a three man midfield of Stewart, Can, and Henderson; it’s not quite my first choice, but it’s not far from the mark.
Liverpool 4 – 1 Sunderland
Well, with hindsight the three points were guaranteed, but there was a brief period when I felt slightly unsettled. We begin brightly: a Nastiasic through ball, Henderson nods on, one touch from Kovalenko, Origi scores. It’s exactly the style of football I want to play. But then Djilobodji equalises, climbing above Targett at the back post.
Coutinho smashed in a free-kick to put us ahead, and then on 66 minutes Firmino, on for Coutinho, curls one in from the edge of the box. Origi then plays in Kovalenko for a lovely second of the season for my Ukrainian acquisition, and we cruise the rest of the game for a 4-1 win.
IAIN: Our international break is spent mostly arguing. Lucas Perez wants more first team football. I tell him to be patient and he does so. Aaron Ramsey, the man who cost me four points in the first two games with an assortment of incompetence so frustrating that I nearly put the laptop through a window, also enquires as to why he hasn’t been getting much game time. I tell him to be patient too, but he considers himself above that sort of thing. Then he goes to the press to shout his mouth and I have no option but to transfer list him. I will not be dictated to by the likes of Aaron Ramsey. Sanchez, on the other hand, can have a sofa in the dressing room if he likes. He’s ace.
It was silly for anyone to complain about game time now. We have a run of five matches in 14 days, so everyone was going to get a kick as the month wore on. Not least because the international break seems to have worn everyone out. Shkodran Mustafi is injured and Gabriel isn’t fit yet and that means a first Premier League start for Jonas Olsson. Look, it’s either him or Rob Holding, ok? I tell the press that I have every faith in him, but worryingly that just upsets the big Swede, who says that he doesn’t feel worthy of my praise. Oh God, what have I done?
Arsenal 0 – 1 Man City
I know exactly what’s going to happen even before it happens. It’s all so obvious. We’re mid-way through the first half and everything is going smoothly. We’re building up from the back, as we always do in Cobra, and the ball is at Olsson’s feet. He is under no pressure at all. With a wild swing of his boot, he slices a pass intended for Nacho Monreal straight to Sergio Aguero. The City striker, as surprised as he is grateful, bursts forward looking to charge through our lines. And then Olsson goes through him like a hammer tossed through the wall of a greenhouse. It’s probably worth two red cards, if we’re honest. I don’t even look at him as he trudges down the tunnel, though I do take a deep sniff for the scent of his conditioner as he walks past me because I’m only human.
We’re in trouble now. Gabriel comes on for Mohamed Elneny and we switch to a 4-4-1 with Ozil desperately trying to link up the midfield with the Sanchez. We defend for our lives and waste time wherever possible, reaching the 80th minute without conceding. And then Gabriel Jesus is injured. And City have used all their subs. We’re both down to ten men and City have a gap on the right flank. I order everything to be played to the left, where I station Ozil. We switch to counter. Perhaps there will be one last chance to win this game. And there is. And Vincent Kompany takes it, losing Gabriel at an injury time corner to head in the winner. I do not wish to hear the name of Jonas Olsson in this house again.
ALEX: We’re second and Arsenal are third with seven games played and unbeaten in seven, albeit with three draws. Manchester United, our next fixture, are top. That should make an already spicy fixture vindaloo hot and, indeed, I start twitching when the injury news rolls in.
Mane is out for between 12-14 days and then Clyne falls foul of bad luck and is knacked for a month. Trent Alexander-Arnold comes onto the bench, but he’s exhausted after international duty. Matip and Origi are also dropped/rotated due to tiredness, and the injured Clyne is replaced by Kevin Stewart. Jose Mourinho tries some default mind-games, playing down the importance of the fixture and questioning whether it matters all that much to fans, players, the media, him even, trying to get me to bite. I play it cool in public, while secretly having nightmares about Anthony Martial running at Kevin Stewart.
Manchester United 1 – 1 Liverpool
We begin pleasingly – more than pleasingly in fact, scoring what I can only describe as an orgasmagoal, all slide-rule passes and bewildering movement, deftly tucked away by Kovalenko. Then, we combust.
Milner gets sent off for scything down a United player. TAA comes on for Henderson, who is so tired he can no longer see straight, but moves to right-back, with Stewart moving up into midfield. The numbers are evened for a moment as Eric Bailly is sent off for hacking at Kovalenko, but then Stewart sees a straight red and my heart is in my mouth with 20 to go.
United batter away at us and finally force an equaliser. I string four across the midfield, with two DMs, contain, and pray for a draw. I’m still praying when the final whistle goes. Would I have taken a point at the game’s outset? You’re damn right I would have.
IAIN: I cannot play a full strength team against Brugge. We’ve got Chelsea at the weekend and I am not going to risk losing two games on the spin. Besides, we beat Sporting, we beat Bayern and we’ve got a very, very talented squad. And they’ve been begging for game time. Well, let’s see what they do with it.
Club Brugge 2 – 2 Arsenal
Ah, I see. They did that. In the space of 60 hideous seconds, the one first teamer I left in the line-up, Laurent Koscielny, loses Emillien Rymenants twice and obviously we find ourselves two goals behind and looking down the barrel of a humiliation.
Luckily, Lucas is keen to prove a point and he smashes home an absolute pearler before the break. He really should equalise too, but when he goes one on one with the goalkeeper, he chooses to run straight into him and fall over instead of shooting. Once again, it’s Giroud who spares our blushes, heading home from a corner after a nice flick on from Koscielny, who is now forgiven for his earlier lapses. I suppose a draw will have to do.
IAIN: One of the biggest differences between the English top flight and the Scottish top flight is the almost total lack of margin for error. At Celtic, I obviously wanted to beat my direct rivals, teams like Hearts and Aberdeen, but if I fell short, it was okay. There would be opportunities to make up the ground against the minnows like Ross County and Rangers. That’s not the case here. I simply cannot lose to my direct rivals here and the minnows refuse to roll over.
We cannot lose to Chelsea. It’s an unacceptable outcome. So this is my best team in its most productive protocol. There is no Ozil. There is all of the pace. Let’s hope it’s enough.
Arsenal 4 – 2 Chelsea
That was emotional. We went off like a runaway train, taking a two goal lead through Sanchez and Cazorla, but even as I reached for the Castle Protocol, the Blues were back in it, levelling in three horrible minutes before half time. This was not the first time that we’d chucked away a lead. I could already feel hot tears stinging my eyes. Out we went again for the second half and, mercifully, we kept our heads. Laurent Koscielny headed one past Thibaut Courtois minutes after the break. This time, I wasn’t going to get caught out. Even as the players celebrated, I was slapping them into the Castle Protocol. I didn’t even notice the linesman ruling out the goal for offside.
And so, for 25 minutes I watched calmly as we passed the ball amongst ourselves, wasting time and retaining possession. I kept a careful eye on fitness, I watched Chelsea like a hawk for tactical changes. I did everything really except look at the score. It was only when Sanchez fired in the actual third goal from distance that I realised my error. If ever you wanted proof that ‘defensive’ doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t attack, this was it. And thank God. As Chelsea pushed for an equaliser, we caught them on the break and added a fourth. I needed this.
ALEX: Mane and Gomez start the comeback from injury ahead of the Merseyside derby and, with Stewart and Milner suspended after their indiscretions last match, we could do with the personnel. Lovren makes way for a no-longer-knackered Matip, and TAA is promoted from the bench with Clyne still injured.
Gomez can cover right-back, which normally Stewart would do, so although his match fitness is less than 70%, I stick him on the bench in place of Lallana, who’s yet to convince me of anything. Oh, and I have to play Ragnar Klavan in the centre of midfield as a BWM because Herbie Kane is 17 years old and not very good. What could possibly go wrong? Kovalenko moves out to the right-hand side of midfield because Origi and he are in such good form I can’t afford to drop either of them.
Everton 2 – 0 Liverpool
Ok. That never happened. If I sit here and think long and hard enough about it not happening, it’ll unhappen, right? Although, by thinking of it, I essentially accept its existence in a self-defeating, Cartesian kind of way. Fucking philosophy.
Everton win 2-0 with goals from Barkley and Lukaku. We lose our unbeaten run and the first Merseyside derby of the season, while Iain records a 4-2 win over Chelsea at home. This is the first real blip and I am unimpressed. That’s all I have to say about the matter.
IAIN: Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s the League Cup, Iain. It’s a trinket. Leave it for the reserves. But I’m not going to do that. I want trophies and I want them for one simple reason. They solidify your position. Win a couple of cups and you can get away with a bit of bad form here and there. And I’ve already shown plenty of potential for that.
We’ll play this to win and that means a strong side. I’m going to put Ozil back in the team though, this time trying him as a deep lying playmaker again. I will make this work, you know. Somehow, I will find a way.
Norwich 0 – 2 Arsenal
We made just one chance in the first half. One. I was not amused. I said some unkind things at half time. I made have threatened to give out slaps and not in a banterific manner. But it worked. Ozil crashed home a free kick out of a well developed sense of self preservation and then the lesser spotted Alex Oxlade Chamberlain added another. Norwich have been dealt with and we’re into the last eight where we’ll play Brighton away.
IAIN: It has been a very difficult month and I’d really like to end in a positive frame of mind. We are almost where I want us to be. We defend well, we control games and we have a number of different plans to win/rescue games. We just need a bit more in every department. Or, more accurately, we need to stop making stupid individual errors and tossing winnable games away. Hoepfully Swansea will be a sign of things to come.
Swansea 2 – 2 Arsenal
No, no. Just a sign of continuing terror. I’m not entirely sure how they do it, but Swansea take an early lead and then find themselves two goals to the good early in the second half. They’ve only had two shots on target. The Cobra is dropped, the Grizzly is engaged and Sanchez pulls one back shortly after the hour. But it’s not enough. We need more. And so we fire up the Giroud and go with two up top.
Suddenly, we are rampant. We hit the bar, we force world class saves and then, finally, Sanchez pulls us back level. We really should go on to win the game, but Lukasz Fabianski appears to have something to prove. This has been regrettable. And yet it could have been worse. You only need to look at Alex’s results to see that.
ALEX: Our next match is against Palace at home. I have Henderson (five yellow cards), Stewart (further two match ban), and Milner (further two match ban) all suspended. I decide on the narrow 4-3-3 (without strikers), playing Origi, Coutinho, and Mane ahead of Can, Wijnaldum and Klavan, who actually did OK in midfield last time out.
Lallana comes onto the bench, Gomez stays there, and TAA retains his place at right-back. We’re not exactly firing on all cylinders at the moment, and the matchday squad has a rather MacGyvered feel to it, but we should be beating Palace. The pundits predict an “easy win”. This is exactly the sort of game Liverpool balls up. Ragnar Klavan takes the armband. Oh mate.
Liverpool 1 – 2 Crystal Palace
We start well and get the break-through, when Klavan flicks on a Coutinho free-kick and Matip ghosts in to nod it past an exposed Mandanda. Then Benteke feeds on a long through ball from Tomkins, and we’re at 1-1. Changes. I need changes. But my bench is threadbare and my system doesn’t exactly forgive fielding players who can’t play in their positions.
Lallana comes on, as does Kovalenko. TAA wins a penalty, but then takes it himself and bloody misses. Then, with ten minutes or so left, Benteke slams one in at the far post from a set-piece after Lallana skews a clearance, and we’ve fucking lost, again. As I said – exactly the sort of game we balls up. We plummet to 9th in the table, but that’s only two points behind 4th place Macintosh. This league is tighter than the avian proverbial.
Iain and Arsenal climb and we fall. Perhaps our start was Icarus-like and now we’re being punished? Or maybe if I hadn’t inherited a team with Chopper Brown tendancies and could field a full-strength side for more than one game, things would be different?
Who knows? All I know is that I have Iain at home in the league next, and I’ll still be without Stewart and Milner. Can Hendo do a job on Ozil? Will I unlock the protocols without strikers? Will we ever keep a clean sheet? Only time, and the next episode, will tell.
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.