FM17 Project: Celtic v Rangers, Episode 7

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…

Episode 1Episode 2Moneyball RangersEpisode 3Episode 4Episode 5Old Firm Preview Part 1; Part 2A Message From The Board; Episode 6.

IAIN: How do you follow that? How do you go to the home of your bitterest rival, batter them and then just move on? Well, you go to the pub. You enjoy the moment. You gather up all the people who believed in you and you celebrate. And so it is that I find myself sitting in the pub on my own with a pint and a bag of dry roasted peanuts, staring out of the window with a grin on my face so wide that you could post an A3 envelope straight into my gullet.

But eventually you have to call time on the rock and roll lifestyle and get back to work. Because this isn’t just a big win. It’s a big opportunity. It’s a launchpad for us to roar to where we should be; 17 points clear at the top of the table, ruining Scottish football as spectator sport. But there’s no let up. We’ve got what we’re calling a BetBright Cup quarter-final against our old friends St Johnstone, the perky chancers who flipped over our B-side in front of everyone on the first day of the season. I want vengeance.

Three days after this, we’ll be playing Aberdeen in the league. It’s a crucial game and it’s vital that everyone is fit and ready for it. But I don’t want to make a single change to this team. I know it’s stupid, I know it’s only a minor cup, I know we need three more points far more. I know that our fringe players should be more than capable of dealing with this lot, but I need another win. I need to string them together. I need to feel what I felt against Rangers. I need to keep feeling it forever. So there will be no changes.

(Click pics to enlarge.)

We are amazing. We fly into St Johnstone as if we just caught them saying something ungentlemanly about our mother. We make streams of chances, we keep the woodwork vibrating all afternoon. And then St Johnstone break and take the lead. Because this is my life and nothing ever seems to change for very long. It’s a really silly goal, straight from a corner, and a reminder that I need to sit down and fine tune everything again after so many alterations.

I have to make changes, so James Forrest, Tom Rogic and Leigh Griffiths come on. We continue to make chances, but we just can’t score. We switch up through attacking football and, with the clock ticking down, into overload. And then Forrest hurdles a sliding tackle, swings a low cross into the six yard box and Griffiths tucks it home.

We go into extra-time energised, ready to seize our destiny by the knackers. And then something very odd happens. Chopper Brown picks up the ball on the halfway line, strides purposefully forward and spanks the ball into the bottom corner as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. A few minutes later, Griffiths turns on a button and fires us 3-1 up. We’re through to the semi-finals of the Betf….the BetBright Cup. And from the language coming from across the desk, I suspect that Rangers are not.

ALEX: What do you do when you lose 2-0 at home to your hated rivals? To a man who wears a suit with a sewn-in pocket square? When you manage a mere three shots and come second in almost every conceivable metric to the opposition?

If you’re me, you don’t panic. Well, after a while you don’t. The night of the game, I gathered up Frodo, our dog, and set off for a brisk, Roy Keane post-Saipan ramble round the back streets of NW2, turning it all over in my mind. Where did we go wrong? How did a three-man defence fail to cope, and why did we produce so few chances? Frodo is surprisingly taciturn on the subject, but I have some thoughts. It’s time to change tactics.

The next morning, I gather the troops. I don’t want to be hard on a team whose morale is already pretty much at basement level, and shouting repeatedly at Senderos isn’t going to help. I need to compensate for the fact that, when Danny Wilson isn’t available or in form, our defence looks as stable as the sort of person who walks around Cricklewood at one in the morning talking to their dog.

In the 1960s, Helenio Herrera developed Karl Rappan’s verrou system, or ‘the bolt’, and tweaked it to perfect the catenaccio. It privileges defence, but with an overlapping left wing-back and an aggressive inside forward and central winger moving into channels behind a lone striker.

Herrera knew that a system needs to work with the players available, and adjusted his to play to his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses. I’m going to follow Herrera’s lead, but without the voodoo and match-fixing.

With Jason Holt as a central winger, McKay out wide drifting into space, and Garner up front, not to mention Wallace in the Giacinto Facchetti position and Tavernier also providing width from right full-back, we have the personnel for the job. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the name Lee Wallace, I automatically think terzino fluidificante.

Ross McCrorie, operating as a sweeper (which requires re-training), will back up Senderos and Kiernan; he’s young and has the potential to develop into a strong player and the sooner I start the process the better. The midfield steel comes from Rossiter as a box-to-box and Poyet sitting behind him as a half-back, a kind of Uruguayan Andrea Pirlo with added bite. He’s got our best pass completion, 89%, so it makes sense to harness his ability to release players higher up the pitch while keeping the rest of the midfield and defensive areas tight.

We’ll be aiming for verticality, pace, and, if that doesn’t work, being so packed and boring that the opposition can’t score or, hopefully, even stay awake. The Scottish Premiership will not have seen anything like it. The chances are, you won’t have either.

The catenaccio debuts against Falkirk away in the Cup. The mentality is defensive and structured, direct and quick, again relying on strength and fitness over technical ability. It’s a regression from the 3-5-2 into a more stable base. Halliday is in for Wallace at left wing back because of the skipper’s injury, but otherwise the team is as I’d want it. We need a clean sheet and, hopefully, we can build from that and start to move up the table.

Well, maybe next match. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that the first time you use a formation in FM17, the lads haven’t got a clue what to do. Having said that, the positives are there to be seen. We managed five shots and hit the target every time. We had more corners, completed more passes, and won more tackles. In fact, despite losing 2-0, we were better in almost every department.

It’s one of those results that just happens sometimes, I suppose, though that’s scant consolation to a squad whose morale is now down in the yellows and oranges. Nonetheless, I press on, keen to put the loss behind us and also quietly relieved that, while Celtic are still in the Champions League and the Cup, we are only fighting on one front. With a weaker squad than the one Iain has at his disposal, we need every advantage we can claw out.

IAIN: Of course, the downside of an exciting extra-time victory against the league leaders (seriously, St Johnstone are amazing in this game for some reason), is that all of our players are absolutely exhausted. And we’ve got Aberdeen in the league.

I know that it seems as if I’m saying, “We really need to win here,” before every game, but we really do. We can’t be larking about in the Champions League group stage and then languishing in mid-table in the Scottish bleeding Premiership. It’s time to get hands off cocks, on socks and get out of bed. Sadly, some people are not fit to get out of bed. In come – deep breath – Dedryck Boyata, Emilio Izaguirre, wonderboy Kris Ajer, Stuart Armstrong and Leigh Griffiths. Let’s go to work.

Within 15 minutes, we’re a goal down thanks to the second catastrophic error of judgement from Craig Gordon this season. Now, it’s not his fault that Scott Sinclair switched off and allowed Shay Logan to take all the time he needed to aim his cross. But it *is* his fault that he stared gormlessly at it while it rolled into the six yard box, clipped his ankle and went into the back of the net. I can only assume that we left Gordon switched on for too long and he went into standby mode.

Fortunately, we’re not behind for long. Within 60 seconds, Armstrong lifts a cross to the near post and Sviatchenko rises to head it home. 1-1 and vindication of the time I spent messing about with set-piece instructions.

Once again, I find myself having to make sweeping changes. This formation isn’t quite right and these tactics aren’t quite sound. I know that I get lots of flak for changing things around too often, but I feel sure that there’s a better way than this. Aberdeen make too many chances getting in behind our wide men, which may be because our wide men are pushed so far forward. But it doesn’t matter in the end because Boyata kicks the ball so hard and so high that it comes down with frost in the stitching and Griffiths takes one touch and then blasts it past Joe Lewis.

With 15 minutes to go, the three points are secured with a neat finish from Stuart Armstrong. We’re home and hosed. We’re up to third. We’re only two points off runaway leaders St Johnstone. And if Alex can continue his appalling form and lose to Dundee, we’ll be six points clear of that lot too.

ALEX: Next up, Dundee. Dundee are essentially the only side worse than us in the league. We might be away, but if we can’t win this…

I keep the side the same, lining up with what FM calls a 5-1-2-2 (SW asymmetrical), because obviously. We are still defensively minded and looking to play vertically with pace; indeed, nothing is tweaked in terms of tactics, because I need the chaps to get used to this odd style and fast.

Wallace returns for Halliday, having recovered from his ankle woes, which is pretty crucial given that he’s a key element to the formation’s success. So, let’s see if we can’t improve on last time.

Goodness me, but that felt good. 5-0. 5-fucking-0 away from home. Garner bags a hat-trick, feeding off a Tavernier cross, then pouncing on a rebound after Rossiter has a shot blocked, before heading in another McKay cross to complete his tally.

McKay scores from a neat Rossiter through ball, and Halliday, on for Wallace, completes the rout. McKay turns in a 9.3 performance. We restrict Dundee to three shots on target and no clear-cut chances as well, and McCrorie deals ably in goal with the shots that do register.  We manage 10 shots, six on target, despite having only 43% possession and 62% passing accuracy.

We rocket up the table to 7th place on nine points, three behind Celtic in 3rd. 5-0 is the biggest win recorded by any side in the Premiership so far as well – catenaccio, defensive? As Herrera himself said, “The problem is that most of the ones who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my catenaccio included.”

Herrera would be proud. Next up, Motherwell at home. They’re one place above us. It’ll be a crucial test of how the new formation is working. We haven’t won two on the bounce yet in the league and momentum is key if we’re to reel Macintosh in and overtake him (and the mysteriously capable St. Johnstone). I didn’t come to play in Scotland; I came to win.

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).

FM17 Project: Celtic v Rangers, Episode 7
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