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?
Perspective is everything in football management. Lose it for a moment and you can create more problems for yourself than anyone else ever could. Never allow your head to swell with success, never allow your heart to sink with despair. Don’t over-dramatise anything and never exaggerate your concerns.
If I don’t win the next game, I’m going to get sacked. In fact, if I don’t win the next two games, I’m going to get sacked. Worse still, with such a pitiful reputation as a manager, I think I’ll be lucky to get back into league football. It’s Sunderland and Hull, for the love of Howard. This has to be six points, doesn’t it? Seven games into the season and there are only two wins on the board. If I can repair the damage quickly, we’ll be back up into mid-table where everyone expects us to finish. But if I can’t…
Having played on the Friday in my last game, I have a chance to travel up to the Stadium of Light and watch David Moyes’ men in action against Manchester City. This seems like a fun way to spend my time, as I fully anticipate that they’ll be torn to shreds, even if they have won two games on the spin. But they are not torn to shreds. Not even nearly. They win and they win well. And so it has come to this. I am actually scared of Sunderland.
There’s a possible weak link at corners. Sunderland have Jermain Defoe (4ft10) on the near post with Didier Ndong (5ft10) guarding him and Papy Djilibodji lurking (6ft4). But Djilibodji can only mark one man. At most. We’ll be working on attacking set pieces for that for two days before the game. But worryingly, there don’t seem to be any other notable vulnerabilities. In fact, they look quite good.
For my own part, I’ve tried to address the problem of having bags of possession and spanking it over the bar from range by shifting my entire attacking three to attacking duties, with both wide men cutting in. We’ll take the width from overlapping fullbacks. Ross Barkley will continue to play deeper in the hope that he can make stuff happen and not just hang about up front scratching his bum while we chase the ball. Hopefully, this will make a difference. Indeed hope is my best friend right now.
It’s the same old bloody syndrome, but it’s a different result. Despite the tweaks to player roles, we spend much of the afternoon running into traffic and giving the ball away. Neither Kevin Mirallas or Yannick Bolasie out wide were able to provide adequate support to Romelu Lukaku, Tom Cleverely was absolutely no use whatsoever, Barkley looked stunted and I can’t recall ever seeing Seamus Coleman beyond the halfway line. We tried to control the game and we failed, we tried to retain possession and we failed. Despite all intentions to the contrary, we did our level best to allow Sunderland to score a late goal in a 30-second period in which they made three excellent chances and missed them all.
But we won. We won because Leighton Baines, having blasted six earlier attempts into the wall, finally scored a free-kick.
I shall put that one down to the extra set-piece training because we didn’t threaten at corners at all and I’ll feel like I’ve wasted my time if I can’t give myself this. But hey, those three points have certainly made the league table look rather better and if you convert that one unfortunate draw against Middlesbrough to a win, we’d basically be sat in eighth, which would be absolutely fine. So it’s not good, but it’s not bad either. Not least because you’ve all spent the week telling me that Everton always get relegated in the first season on your games.
But I know there’s more that I can get out of these players. There must be a way to unlock the potential in them. If we play two in the middle, we’re overrun. If we play three in the middle, we struggle to support Lukaku. Somewhere here is the answer. I just need to find it.
Hull play in exactly the same shape as Sunderland, so there’s no call for any dramatic changes for the next game. A thorough examination of their team reveals a number of interesting deficiencies in Ahmed Elmohamady. His positioning, decision-making and determination numbers are all really, really low. I wonder if a concerted focus on his flank might force some kind of hideous mental collapse. Let’s hope so. We’ll push the ball out there and find out.
Idrissa Gueye returns from suspension and I’m going to use James McCarthy, who was excellent against Sunderland, as a ball winning midfielder but higher up the pitch, sparking counter attacks. To guard against Hull’s counter attacks, Seamus Coleman will play a more disciplined role on the right. We’re also going to drop back from control to standard which might put a stop to all that fannying around with the ball. Maybe this is the magic formula.
No. No it wasn’t. For the first 15 minutes, this was a most depressing experience. We couldn’t get hold of the ball and we couldn’t stop Hull from making chances. I may not be Rinus Michels, but that does feel like a terrible combination. A quick flick back to control fixed everything, but the match simply degenerated into a stale gridlock with both teams lacking either the imagination or the invention to do anything positive.
It was at this point that I felt the midfield might be a little too cautious. Off came McCarthy and on came Cleverley. He was told to go box to box and Barkley was to be an attacking advanced playmaker. The appalling Bolasie was hauled off and replaced by Gerard the Snake. And with that, everything changed.
Mirallas, and I have to steady myself in my seat just to type this, executed a perfect rabona in the penalty area, lofting the ball up to Gerard the Snake who took a touch and slammed it home. This is a thing that actually happened. I had to watch the replay several times and then find a passer-by to corroborate what my eyes were seeing. And then we really started to play football.
How Hull got away with a scoreline that respectable really is the mystery of the season. They couldn’t get out of their own half and I’m just a little bit cross that we didn’t turn those half chances into actual goals. But no matter. That’s the first time I’ve actually felt really in control of a game. And now we have two wins in a row. Or three from four if you go back to the Southampton game. It’s nothing to show off about, it’s pretty much what we’re expected to do, but that feels good compared to last month where we fell well short of almost all expectations and everyone laughed at me on the internet.
Because of our League Cup misfortune against Birmingham, there are only three games in October, but the last one is a real doozie. Watford are flying at the moment. They’re 4th in the table and it might be because they play with a back three while most teams play with a single striker. I go back and watch highlights from the games they have actually lost, but there aren’t any clues there, sadly. They’ve been beaten by really good teams like Chelsea and Manchester City and once in the cup by Brighton, but in the former cases it could just be the talent gap and in the latter, it was probably because they played a reserve team. One possible weakness is at the back post for corners where they have a couple of modestly scaled six footers and a bit of space to play around in. I reconfigure the set pieces accordingly, but I’m not holding my breath.
On balance, I think it’s best not to mess around with the unit that worked so well against Hull. As the game progresses, I might bring Lukaku deeper as a supporting target man to bring the others into play, but I think we should go as we are for now. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
As expected, we find it very hard to do anything up against a three-man midfield and a three-man defence. We’re not moving it quickly enough and we’re not doing anything with it when we’ve got it. Watford aren’t too dangerous, but we’re not either. But there is a chance to change all this. Their right-back Daryl Janmaat is booked early on. And I have lots of pace out on the left. Two add two equals a switch to counter attacking, direct passing and a concerted effort to get it onto our left flank. Either Janmaat will doubt himself and Gerard the Snake will get past him or Janmaat will foul him and get himself sent off. And that should sort the whole ‘finding space’ problem.
But for the remaining 20 minutes of the first half I am driven to actual proper shouting by my team’s failure to follow instructions. “LEFT!” I bellow at the laptop. “LEEEEEEEFT!” But they don’t listen. They play it out to the right and inevitably the move breaks down. “LEEEEEEEFT!” I howl. “LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!” I shout. Nothing.
At half time, I’m frustrated, hoarse and angry. We’re not getting anywhere and it’s not even as though I can just leave them to it and hope something changes. When we invariably lose the ball in Watford’s half, they break with great pace and cause problems. We have to change. Perhaps, given that there is a gap between their attack and midfield, we don’t need Gueye in that deep role. Perhaps we can lose him, add another man to the attack and swing the balance that way. After all, we are at home. So off comes Gueye and on comes Cleverley.
Within 10 minutes, we’re 0-2 down and my vision is tinted with red. I push McCarthy back into the gap between the defence and the midfield, but it’s too late. We’ve been done. And now everything is going wrong. There is no longer any point in getting excited when Barkley or Mirallas or Delofeu or Bolasie run with the ball. I already know how it ends. It ends with them slowing down, walking into a defender and then falling over. And then Watford break. Midway through the second half, we have reached such intense cluster-fuckery that everyone is at it. Seamus Coleman is playing balls down the flank to no-one, Lukaku is heading the ball out of play instead of to his team-mates. Ashley Williams saves us with a fine tackle on Ighalo and then turns around and blasts the ball just wide of Stekelenburg’s post to give away a corner. It’s like England against Iceland, a horrendous, slow-motion descent into a self-perpetuating vortex of useless twat.
“LEEEEEEEFT!” I shout again, still aware of Janmaat’s vulnerabilities. “LEEEEEEEEEFT!” But they can’t hear me. They’re not real. The people who share my office are real though. And apparently they’re a bit concerned for my welfare. They would, on the whole I suspect, prefer it if I worked from home more. But I can’t do that. The cat’s had enough of me too.
And so we end the month here, somewhere sort of in the middle if you squint a bit.* Ordinarily, I’d reflect on six points from a possible nine and the chance to build something on that. But we’ve got Manchester United next and then Liverpool, so it’s just possible that our chance to build has passed us by. It’s just possible that the start of November will bring as much anxiety as the start of October.
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).
*(I’d actually show you the league table, but I forgot to take a picture and I’ve played another game since then and I’m so, so sorry. I was 12th. Still, at least I fixed the spoilerific action shots, eh? One step at a time.)