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: Ordinarily, I’d worry a bit about a Champions League semi-final with Bayern Munich, but picking a team really isn’t going to be too hard because we’ve pretty much only got 18 players available.
I want to stretch Bayern so I’ll use Alex Iwobi, still regaining fitness after a lengthy lay-off and his cry-arseing, and I’ll leave Mesut Ozil on the bench. I’ll also go with a midfield triangle of Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka and Adrien Rabiot for maximum energy and shithousery. It’s Cobra Protocol all the way.
Well…that was the sort of performance I dream about. We started well, rattled them with some early efforts, took the lead when Iwobi slotted home from a beautiful Alexis Sanchez through ball and then just…stayed in control.
We should have doubled our lead when Elneny hit the post in the second half, but alas, it was not to be. But I was happy enough just to see us control the game and deny Bayern any serious opportunities at all. We’ve played them three times this season and we haven’t lost yet. One more of those and we’ll be in the final.
IAIN: And we’ll need to win that final if we screw up our trip to Old Trafford. Manchester United are resurgent, Alex’s Liverpool have got a piss-easy home game against Swansea and we could very easily be fifth by the end of the day. We haven’t lost a game in the league since November, but we’ve certainly drawn a few. If we hadn’t dropped silly points against Stoke, Boro and West Ham, we’d be fighting for the title right now. Instead, we’re here, scrapping for the top four. And we’re tired.
With that in mind, I’ve reduced training to low-level tactical work and it’s just about kept our team fit enough for purpose. I’ll use the fresh legs of the cup-tied Demarai Gray to give us an edge and hope that it’s enough. The good news is that United were in Europa League action in midweek, so they won’t be much fitter.
Jose Mourinho appears to feel, as I do, that not losing is a perfectly acceptable result. The first half is absolutely wretched with plenty of chances, technically, but none that are actually any good. United look more fatigued than us though and so I decide to take the game to them on the hour, introducing Welbeck as a defensive forward to pressurise their tired midfield and Ozil to…well…hope that he has his one amazing game in four. There are no highlights for the next 15 minutes and so I switch to Klopp Protocol, attacking, high tempo, high pressing.
With just five minutes to go, United lose the ball outside my area and Ozil splits their tired defence with a delicious long pass. Welbeck rushes onto it, controlling it perfectly with his first touch and racing into the penalty area. He takes his time, takes a breath, shapes to shoot…and blasts it straight at David de Gea. I think we all knew that was going to happen, didn’t we? I’m disappointed with the draw, it’s certainly ended whatever remained of our title hopes, but then I notice that Alex has gone very quiet…
ALEX: The dog days of the season are upon us. I don’t know whether to feel relief or sadness. I guess it’s like the end of Glastonbury, not that I’ve been or have any intention of going. But as the euphoria wears off (by which I mean the drugs), it’s sad to be leaving a great experience shared with your friends, and amazing to finally not have to shit in a field. I feel much the same way about this season.
To make my life harder, though, I have Nastasic, Milner, and Henderson injured, and Wijnaldum and Lovren suspended until the end of the season. I also have a cruel final set of fixtures. While our third to last game is Swansea at home, the final two are Manchester City and Chelsea, both away. City are top with 81 points, followed by Spurs on 77, Arsenal on 74, and then my mighty Liverpool on 73. So, while overhauling Iain is still very much on the cards, not much else is. He also must contend with some Champions League action, which could play into my hands, and there’s always his own personal propensity for snatching humiliation from the jaws of success. We can only hope.
For the Swansea game, I pick Matip and Klavan in central defence and Ejaria, Grujic, and Can in central midfield. It’s far from ideal, but Swansea are in 17th and we should be fine. Paul Clement tries to wind me up but to be honest, I don’t need to be wound up – I’m already on a knife-edge. I try to answer as neutrally as possible in the presser, but I’ll be sending the boys out with fire in their bellies.
Turns out that a stirring pre-match talk only goes so far. After three minutes, Gylfi slams home a penalty from Moreno’s foul. We push forwards, get plenty of shots off, go to attacking, move players wide, make changes, shout instructions – nothing works. Nothing, except our fouling: eventually Mane handles in the box and Swansea get another penalty which the dead-eyed Icelander converts again.
We lose 2-0, at home, to a team in the relegation battle. At this point, with four first team players suspended or injured, and my best covering defender banned til the end of the season, it’s hard to see any positives in this, and so I won’t even try. I’m tired, angry, and I just want to shut my computer and never look at it again. And we have City and Chelsea away next. Even Frodo has no sympathy. We’re still fourth but only on goal difference. Please can I resign?
IAIN: And so to Bavaria for the Champions League semi-final second leg, a stage that Arsenal haven’t reached since 2009. As with the first leg, we don’t really have many selection quandaries. The 18 on the sheet are the only 18 fit and it’s hard to make a case for messing around too much.
We’ll play Cobra, obviously, we’ll hope that there’s enough to catch Bayern on the break and I guess we’ll see what happens. Don’t be surprised to see Castle Protocol deployed on the off chance that the scores are level after, oooh I don’t know, seven minutes?
I don’t know how long I will be here (not very long if we don’t win on Saturday) but I think, conservatively, that I’ll need at least a decade to surgically remove the bulbous tumour of uselessness that swells within the heart of this club.
We took the lead quite unexpectedly when Sanchez smashed home a free-kick from just outside the area. That was good. That meant that Bayern needed three goals to qualify. I could handle that.
But despite my frantic shouts of “Concentrate!” Arsenal quickly lost focus. Bayern were back in the game when David Alaba got free at a corner and smashed the ball into the back of the net via the circuitous route of Adrien Rabiot’s face. My half-time team talk urged concentration, but four minutes later, Petr Cech came scampering out for a corner with his arms in the air like he just didn’t care. He missed the ball completely and Jerome Boateng was able to head home. Now Bayern only needed one and no-one in the world would have bet against them getting it.
I brought on Mesut Ozil to try and impose some kind of accuracy in our risible passing but by the hour mark our only chance of the game was Sanchez’s early free-kick. I didn’t want to risk Theo Walcott, only 82% fit, but I didn’t see how I could leave him on the bench to watch this incompetence unfold. On he came with 20 minutes to go. Sixty seconds after his arrival, Matthieu Debuchy noticed Arturo Vidal running away from goal in the penalty area and opted to kick him to the ground. Penalty. Goal. 3-1. And that’s all Bayern needed.
Now there was only one thing I could do. Attack. We switched to Klopp Protocol, we replaced the defensive midfielder with another striker, Danny Welbeck. And now, finally, Bayern looked nervous. We started to make chances. With ten minutes to go, Welbeck won the ball in their third, cut inside and released a ferocious shot that nearly snapped the corner flag in half. Two minutes after that, Sanchez was released by Ozil, but Neuer pulled off an incredible double save.
All we needed was one goal, one goal and we’d be in the final. And we got it. In a frantic last minute Theo Walcott, nowhere near match fit, raced through and gently nudged the ball into the far corner. He’d done it! We had our goal! And you know what? If it hadn’t been for Robert Lewandowski scoring Bayern’s fourth two minutes earlier, it might actually have meant something.
IAIN: Despondent, but professional, I try to rally the troops. We must, somehow, renew our focus. It’s Sunderland at home. Win this and we probably secure 4th. Lose and I think I’ll cry. Obviously, the players are shattered. I make all the changes I can make. There are a few people with something to prove here. There are a few people who might be getting acquainted with the sharp end of the transfer list in a couple of weeks. But after the performance in Munich, perhaps our best hope is that Alex loses.
Job done. Quickly and efficiently. We win an early penalty and Sanchez converts it. Then Kieran Gibbs gets down the left flank and cuts the ball back so that our Chilean goal machine can score another, his 37th of the season. And though we frequently go close in the remainder of the game, that’s the way it ends. A mature, composed performance. Once again, however, Alex is very quiet…
ALEX: Due to Fabio Borini playing 45 matches for Sunderland and the Black Cats somehow avoiding relegation, we receive £1.1m from them in fees. Iain sings “Put on your happy face”, while I rock gently in the corner muttering about clouds and silver linings. The office is a weird place sometimes.
City have Aguero and Kompany out and Fernandinho suspended, and we can recall Wijnaldum to play the central playmaking role, so maybe, just maybe…who am I kidding? I am condemned to repeat a cycle of failure, ever since that Rangers save. That ruined everything. I can understand now how people become accustomed to messing up so much that they expect it. Barrie McKay ruined everything. Joey Barton. Philippe Senderos. I’ll never escape his looming bald pate, metaphorically nutting me repeatedly.
My marrow has sickened, a pathology of failure. Iain, on the other hand, Iain is chipper as anything. That just makes it worse. Just before the game, I am notified that Karius is injured and Gomez has a cold. A fucking cold. We have no central defensive cover and Mignolet in goal. Fortunately, Milner scrapes himself back together enough to start, but with only 89% match fitness.
We start well, Milner forcing a diving save from Bravo within seconds of the kick-off, but then the old lethargy seeps in, and before long, Nolito scores. I change up a bit, moving to a wide 4-1-2-3, but it makes no difference. I scream at the players at half-time and get a lot of green, but it makes no difference. I bring on Kovalenko, Origi, Grujic, but it makes no difference. Nothing does anymore.
“At least it was only 1-0,” I say with resignation to Iain. “Oh mate,” he replies. United win their game in hand and we slip to fifth.
IAIN: Well, whatever happens on the final weekend, we’ve got fourth at the very least. The board respond to that positively, handing me an £86m warchest for the summer. That should be more than enough, especially as I intend to shed some dead wood. As far as third place goes, all I have to do is not lose to Palace. At home. That should be possible, shouldn’t it?
Well, we did our best. For a time, a short time, it was the best possible sort of afternoon. A well worked corner gave Rabiot the chance to blast home an opening goal in the fifth minute. Nine minutes later, a well worked corner gave Rabiot the chance to blast home another. Never have I been so glad to have done all that extra set-piece work.
But I’m just settling back to enjoy a comfortable afternoon when Danilo goes through Wilfried Zaha from behind on the halfway line. It’s a hideous challenge, there’s no reason for it all, and he’s rightly sent off. With no right-back on the bench, Koscielny has to deputise and so off comes Elneny for Per Mertesacker and what will probably be his farewell game. Just minutes later, Petr Cech pulls up with a hamstring injury. We’ve used two subs before half time and I have to use a third shortly after the break because Cazorla wasn’t fit enough to play the full ninety. But hey, we’re 2-0 up, so what does it matter that we’ve used all our subs?
Two minutes later, Koscielny is sent off for a second bookable offence. We’re down to nine men, I have no more subs and there’s no-one here who can play full back. Now we’re properly in the shit. I switch to a back three with the wingers supporting and have us defend for our lives. Palace pull one back and Mertesacker puts in the performance of a lifetime, heading everything away with impunity. This is desperate stuff. Then Walcott pulls up. He’s twisted his knee.
I’m effectively down to eight men, but I can’t take him off. I need him to just stand still and mark space. We hold out, somehow, and claim the points but by thunder have I got some work to do this summer. My blood pressure can’t take much more of this.
ALEX: And so, to Chelsea away, the last game of the season. Henderson is back but not fit enough to be selected, which isn’t helpful. There are no other changes. No sooner have I typed that and pressed continue, than Moreno gets injured. I mean, really; I have no words.
Antonio Conte does, though, revving up the mind games by labelling Klavan a weak link (with which I cannot argue) and heaping all the pressure on me. None of these things are news to me, so I’m not sure what he felt he could achieve. The same team that went on a 12-match unbeaten run has now lost three in six and couldn’t even beat Swansea. I know pressure, Antonio. You have no fucking clue.
All I will say about this game is that it was 0-0 until two minutes to go, when N’Golo Kante scores by hitting the ball into Matip’s arse, which deflects it past Mignolet. If that’s not a tidy metaphor for my entire second half of the season, I don’t know what is. By the end, I am just shouting at the screen. I’ve nothing left.
We finish fifth. A season that at one point promised so much has ultimately delivered a first-round Europa league tie in somewhere like Tbilisi. There have been some high points, yes, and some very good performances, but ultimately, we just couldn’t sustain it and dropped off badly. As in life, so in the game. I can’t continue. I’m off. I resign, the first joyful thing I think I’ve done in weeks.
My heart is light as a feather. So, what next? I might emigrate to Chile with Frodo and write that book on the tactical innovations of the Primera B that I always wanted to, or build a castle in the living room out of Rothmans Football Yearbooks and never come out.
Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll take a sabbatical and return, stronger, wiser, more relaxed. Take a job that really suits me, like Ajax or Crvena Zvezda or Hartlepool. This game never leaves you alone for long. But until then, adieu. May your days be long and sunny and devoid of Philippe Senderos.
IAIN: I’m in my office, licking the inside of the drinks globe, when I hear the news. Alex has gone. That catastrophic late run of form has done for him. It’s a real shame. There was a point in the season when I honestly thought he was going to win the league. But this game. When it goes, it really goes.
I’ll be sticking around though. I’m appalled at the mental fragility I’ve found here at the Emirates Stadium, but there a few bright spots. There’s something to build on. I can take this motley collection of rubber-spined chancers and mould them into something halfway competent. We weren’t that far off in the league and we weren’t that far off a Champions League final.
I will return.
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.