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.
THE CATCH: The Celtic v Rangers challenge did not go well for Alex Stewart, while Iain Macintosh is going to find it a lot tougher than his breezy spell at Celtic.
Episode 1; Episode 2; Episode 3; Episode 4; Episode 5; Episode 6; Episode 7; Episode 8
ALEX: We’re doing well, aren’t we? Sorry to those whose love of schadenfreude is greater than their appreciation of sexy counter-pressing, but I couldn’t be happier. I win the Premier League Manager of the Month for December, with Iain coming second, and members of the Liverpool squad occupy all three places in the Player of the Month round-up.
The Board celebrate by offering me a new contract of £89k per week, which is less exciting than Iain’s sudden cash injection, but still makes me feel good. I will soon be able to afford a luxury island or, better yet, a house with a nature pond. I hear they are popular with footballers.
IAIN: I’m delighted that Alex has been awarded a new contract as Liverpool manager. I really am. I think about how delighted I am while I sit and wait for my phone to ring. He’s done really well, I say to myself, as I look for Chips Keswick’s name in my inbox. He’s really proved himself, I smile, as I ask my secretary if there are any messages, any messages at all. Yes. Well done, Alex.
I may not have a new contract, but I do at least have a transfer kitty windfall. The board have presented me with £72m and I’m giddy with excitement. I had been wondering what value I was ever going to get from the £15m that remained in Arsene’s dusty war chest. Now I’m absolutely minted. I intend to spend it on Virgil van Dijk and Antoine Griezmann. We’ll need to clear a few people out to make this work, a task that PSG make infinitely easier when they bid £17m for Gabriel. I haggle them up to £20m and then accept.
Everton are tricky. Our Cobra Protocol isn’t always effective against a three-man defence, but as I’ve got five straight wins under my belt, I’m reluctant to make any changes. I opt to start cautious and then crank it up to 4-4-2 if necessary.
It’s a bit of a sticky start, what with the returning Shkodran Mustafi getting booked inside 100 seconds, but we take the lead midway through the first half with a typical Cobra goal, a low cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right that Alexis Sanchez tucks home with ease.
Ten minutes later, the Ox adds a second himself, with Alex Iwobi playing his way back into my favour with a neat assist before leaving the field with a head injury soon afterwards. Everton barely threaten. It’s all quite…routine. I don’t break into a sweat once. It’s quiet. Too quiet.
ALEX: The transfer window opens, and Manchester City are immediately sniffing around Jordan Henderson. I explain politely that Pep can look elsewhere – if there’s one key area where my squad cannot afford to be lightened, it’s in central midfield.
West Bromwich Albion, who I am due to play in our next fixture, come in with a bid for Danny Ings which could rise to £7 million. PSG then throw £22.5m rising to £33.5m for Emre Can, which I refuse. I look forward to the inevitable Can flounce but, credit where it’s due, he appears to suck up the rejection (probably because he wants to move to Barcelona instead).
I recall Grujic, who has had a 23-game, 7.17 average spell on loan at Wolves, just in case. Lallana demands to be transferred because of a lack of playing time which is, I must admit, a fair demand. Iain is surprised I’ve listed him, but the formation doesn’t suit more than one attacking midfielder and, for the time being, I can’t afford to drop Coutinho or Firmino.
For West Brom away, I focus on defending set pieces, obviously, and rest Matip, bringing in Lovren. Coutinho plays as an AM behind Origi and Mane.
Despite it being only WBA, I am relieved when Milner opens the scoring, chest-controlling a chipped Coutinho through ball before rifling it low and hard into the bottom right corner. Clyne adds a second from a swift counter-attack, before an Insua own-goal gives us a three goal cushion after 17 minutes.
I make little purring noises of pleasure. I bring on Kovalenko and Grujic and Firmino, but the score remains a very comfortable 3-0. With all our rivals winning too, avoiding dropping points is key in this part of the season, not heaping humiliation on our opponents.
IAIN: Negotiations for my targeted players are hard. Atletico Madrid refuse offers of £50m, £60m and £70m for Griezmann, so that’s probably out of the question. And I’m not the only one to swoop for Van Dijk. Barcelona and Real Madrid want him too. I may have to actually do some scouting. Reluctantly, we say goodbye to Carl Jenkinson. I can’t turn down nearly £6m for a third choice right-back, banter or no banter.
But not before a nice FA Cup third round tie at home to Bradford. I have absolutely no intention of using this as anything other than practice for fringe players. If we do go out, we’ll enjoy the weekends off in the run-in when everyone else is trying to juggle title challenges with European commitments. Everyone apart from, Alex, obviously. And isn’t he making the most of an empty diary. Meanwhile, we’ll let Bradford wear themselves out attacking us and then we’ll pick them off when they get tired.
For 87 minutes, I was reasonably content with that. Olivier Giroud put us in the lead in the first half and Bradford caused no problems whatsoever. I shifted to 4-4-2 after the break, brought Danny Welbeck on for Theo Walcott, who still lacked match fitness, and Giroud scored again. We made lots of clear cut chances and the game seemed over.
And then Jordy Hiwula somehow beat Jonas Olsson for pace and slipped home a consolation. Then Olsson got himself booked. Then he gave the ball away and it took a fine tackle from Santi Cazorla to prevent another breakaway. We got away with it and closed out the win, but I do wonder about Olsson sometimes. Is he actually good enough for a club like Arsenal?
ALEX: The transfer window continues to see teams trying to steal my shit. A case in point: Spurs bid £44m for Firmino. This is amusing for two reasons: firstly, because that sale will never happen, and secondly, because it flashes up a reminder that “the highest fee Tottenham have ever paid for a player was Moussa Sissoko’s £30,000,000 transfer from Newcastle.” Lads, honestly. Real Madrid then offer £22m for Can but I Can’t accept. See how jovial I get when I’m winning?
I note with pleasure that we have scored the most goals so far (47) and have the highest average possession (56.1%). Karius also hasn’t conceded for 398 minutes, so all of you who questioned selecting him over Mignolet can bite me. Next up is a cup game against Barnsley at Oakwell. I bring in Firmino to partner Mane, and recall Matip; we have a week until our next fixture and I want everyone playing with the kind of rhythm that only minimal rotation can bring.
We win, but it’s a pretty standard away-at-a-lower-side-in-the-cup tussle, low on quality and high on grit. Mane scores his eighth of the season after 14 minutes with a lovely driving run and dipping shot from the edge of the box. Barnsley’s compact 4-4-2 is as tough to break down as you would expect, though, and the rest of the first half passes by without incident.
Milner adds a penalty in the second half as we continue to press, but that’s the extent of our scoring and, indeed, only a fine stop from Karius from a one-on-one prevents Barnsley from grabbing a goal. Still, we dominate and progress, and that’s all I can ask for.
IAIN: Fortunately, the Olsson problem is not something that need concern me for much longer. In spite of offers from Barcelona and Real Madrid, we have landed Van Dijk for a trifling £36.5m. At just 25, he’s in peak condition and he has another seven decent years in him at least. With him and Adrien Rabiot coming in, I think it’s clear where I saw the deficiencies in this squad. I appear to have just completed a successful spine transplant.
Sadly, I may lose Hector Bellerin. He’s been agitating for a move to Barcelona all season and I kept putting him off saying that I’ll deal with it if and when we get an offer. And now we get an offer. All told, it’ll add up to £40m. If I refuse to accept, Bellerin will be furious and experience tells me that there’s a risk that the entire squad will kick off. And so, with heavy heart, I say yes. Gabriel is off too, but strangely, I’m not so upset about that.
Van Dijk will go straight in the team for the game with Bournemouth. We’re in excellent form and we’re very nearly full strength, so I want to be clear that we are not at home to Doctor Fuckup. There are a couple of changes. Granit Xhaka is getting moody about game-time, so he comes in as another deep-lying playmaker, but deeper. And there will be a farewell game for Bellerin, in the hope that he gets injured and the move is cancelled.
What a wonderful afternoon. How out of keeping with my entire Football Manager life thus far. Alexis Sanchez gets us going when he bursts through the middle and tees up Theo Walcott for a comeback goal. The Chilean makes another shortly after the break, exchanging passes with Rabiot before the Frenchman finishes. And then Sanchez bags one for himself, converting a delightful cross from Bellerin, who we shall miss dearly. Van Dijk is absolutely outstanding, we could easily score more goals and I feel very much at peace in the universe. This can’t last.
ALEX: The burgeoning queue of clubs knocking at my door for players continues, and with my team playing so well it’s hardly surprising; this time it’s Spurs again, who seem flush, asking for Divock Origi in exchange for a laughable £21m rising to £27m.
I do sell Ings to Leicester, though, who snuck in with a bid that gazumped WBA: he goes for £7m and we cut the £75k per week in wages he was somehow leeching from the club. Our coffers now look at little healthier, though not quite Arsenal’s £80m healthy, but then I know that Iain will likely splash all that on an attacking midfielder who doesn’t fit any of his bizarre protocols and/or a 47-year-old sweeper with a pace of 3.
Next up are Watford away. They have played a cup game three days prior, and so should be a little tired, but Matip is having his customary fitness issues and so I need to rest him as well. Lovren comes in, but we are otherwise unchanged. I know Macintosh has kittens when playing against a back three, but hopefully our narrow formation with its overlapping full-backs will pin Watford in their own half, and our skill going forwards will be too much for them. Let’s see.
Kittens? Etienne Capoue is sent off after two minutes for scything down Moreno to hand us an immediate advantage. Watford keep us at bay until the 33rd minute, when Milner wins possession in their half, plays the ball to Moreno, who jinks off down the by-line before putting it on a plate for Firmino at the near post – yummy. It’s the Brazilian’s seventh goal of the season.
Moreno then switches it to Clyne, who crosses for Firmino to get his eighth, this time at the far post. Clyne and Grujic both hit the woodwork, but it finishes 2-0. We are still in 2nd, with Iain in 3rd. We’ve won nine in a row in the PL, 10 if you include Barnsley away in the cup. I’ve also not conceded in six Premier League games. Next up, though, are Spurs.
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.