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 new Dumbarton manager Alex Stewart, while Iain Macintosh is going to find it a lot tougher than his breezy spell at Celtic.
Arsenal v Liverpool: Episode 1
IAIN: I feel a bit nervous. I’ve been second guessing myself for 48 hours. Everton, you see, play a very odd, very narrow sort of 3-5-2 and they will pose a certain threat. Should I match up? I’ve been working on a good back three shape myself. No…no, that’s exactly what they’ll be expecting. And besides, I’m Arsenal. I shouldn’t have to bend to the will of others.
They lack height at the back and cover on the flanks. We have Olivier Giroud and four wide-men tasked with servicing him at altitude. We can do this. And no, relax, Jonas Olsson is not in the starting line-up. He is a fine defender and a warm-hearted, considerate man that I would not hesitate to use in a tight spot. But he’s here as cheap back-up while Gabriel and Per Mertesacker are injured, so don’t panic.
On so many levels, this was a fantastic start. Credit to the players, they followed my instructions to the letter. We kept getting the ball out wide and with both the full-backs and the wingers set to attack, it meant that we were double-manning Everton on the flanks. It took only ten minutes for the ploy to pay off, Giroud rising to head home Santi Cazorla’s delicately wedged cross. And the chances kept coming. And we kept missing them. And I was trying to be cool about it, but there was a spreading ache on the left of my chest and my palms were leaking.
Everton are barely attacking though and my request for the players not to be complacent in the second half is rewarded with a reassuring spread of green. And then, just before the hour mark, my nightmare scenario is realised. Aaron Ramsey truncates a glorious passing move by artlessly giving the ball away, Everton break, swirl in a cross of their own and Ross Barkley’s header is palmed onto the post and in by Petr Cech. We continue to push for the winner, I get Sanchez up front, I use Walcott from the bench, I switch to attacking and then overload, but we still can’t score. It’s a very annoying 1-1 draw.
ALEX: The league is upon us. Liverpool haven’t won it in goodness knows how long and my general sense is we aren’t about to start now. But a good set of results from a relatively friendly set of fixtures to start with and who knows?
First up are West Bromwich Albion, managed by everyone’s favourite hipster gaffer, Tony Pulis. When quizzed about the managerial neophyte he’s about to face, Pulis says my appointment is “part of the charm of football”. This is the most unlikely phrase ever to spill from that man’s pursed lips, but it’s sweet of him, and I resolve to be nice in turn, while also battering his team on the pitch.
We set up with the 4-3-3 that has served us well in pre-season, with two options in reserve: one sees one of the shadow strikers advanced into a deep-lying forward role, the other pushes the two SSs into inside forward roles and converts the AP(s) into an SS. West Brom will be good in the air, so I go for the compact 4-3-3, which doesn’t use crosses all that much. The team is my first choice XI.
The first half passes by in a dribble of mediocrity, and it’s not until the second that we start to purr. I pull Emre Can at 50 minutes as he begins to tire and bring on Kevin Stewart, and then make a double switch with half an hour to go, bringing on Kovalenko and Origi for Lallana and Mane.
It pays off immediately, as Clyne pulls one back across the box to Targett, who slides the ball through to Kovalenko for a goal on his debut. Milner adds another soon after with a lovely strike and we see out the rest of the game, creating in total three clear cut chances, three half chances, and registering eight shots on target with a 7.13 average rating for the team.
Milner is out for three weeks, though, after suffering fractured ribs making a tackle. In the post-match interview I state that Pulis and I are friends and share a similar outlook on football. I have a grudging respect for their astonishing chance creation metrics from set-pieces, and I like his cap.
IAIN: Arsene’s Arsenal generally suffered away at West Bromwich Albion, so there’s a chance here for me to lay down a marker. I want my team to be clever and adaptable, not welded to any kind of ideology. So while we’ll stick with the same shape, we’ll use Sanchez as a striker, Walcott on the wing and we’ll leave Giroud out entirely because I really don’t think this is a day for tossing crosses into the box.
We need to be smarter than that. We’ll drop Cazorla back as a deep-lying midfielder, push Aaron Ramsey up into the No.10 role while Mesut Ozil continues to recover from injury aaaaaaand, we’ll give a debut to £20m signing Adrien Rabiot and use him a box-to-box midfielder.
I really could do with a win here because I don’t think anyone will take too kindly to a two game winless run.
Yep, we’ve certainly laid down a marker. And that marker says, “We are Arsenal and we will never, ever fucking change.”
We lost Nacho Monreal to concussion after just 12 minutes and that meant Mathieu Debuchy coming on as a left-back. Naturally, I directed everything to the right side of the pitch, which went pretty well. First Hector Bellerin slid in a low cross for Sanchez to tuck home and then Walcott fired in a cross for Sanchez to head home. Two goals to the good at the break, I calmly told them that I was pleased with their efforts. And then, in the space of four minutes, I was profoundly displeased with their efforts.
First Petr Cech came flapping at a corner and allowed Gareth McAuley to head one in. Then Ramsey, again, gave the ball away as we broke and Salomon Rondon was able to score the equaliser. We had chances to win. Scores of chances. But we didn’t take them. I am beginning to see why Arsene doesn’t smile much these days. These fucking idiots are already doing my tits in.
ALEX: I send Jordan Williams to Pompey on a short-term deal, despite already having to defend the large number of players out on loan. I sign Terry Moore, a Saints youth coach, to bulk out my junior coaching, and because I seem to be intent on ripping apart the club I love and I just can’t stop myself.
I also sign Jay-Jay Okocha as another youth coach, not because he’s any good, but because he’s Jay-Jay bloody Okocha. Occasionally, you have to let your heart rule your head – even me. I note that Iain has also made a good signing, Adrien Rabiot. I note this with genuine surprise, because it’s Iain.
Our next game is away at Spurs. Spurs are good. They’re good in real life and they’re good in the game. I keep my formation the same, but drop Lallana, shift Firmino inside to the playmaking role, and draft in Coutinho. I think he’ll give us more from dead ball situations and a bit more trickery running at Walker.
Well, it’s nervy, but I’ll take that. We go 1-0 up after some cute interchanges, Mane sliding it home. Kane equalises with a header from a Danny Rose cross after Coutinho spannered two clear chances. Kevin Stewart then plays a sumptuous, dinked through ball and this time Coutinho makes no mistake, leathering it past Lloris for 2-1.
Kane equalises again after Son drags back a low cross. With seven minutes to go, Clyne intercepts and we break at pace, but Kovalenko can only hit the post. It’s our final chance, but I’ll settle for a 2-2 away from home at Spurs in the second game of the season. Especially when I find out that Iain’s result at WBA was, well, very Arsenal-y.
ALEX: Next up is Luton away in the EFL Cup, a fixture to inspire fear if ever there was one. With all due respect to the Hatters, they’re not very good, but they will be physical and they play a back five, so they will be tough to break down.
I rotate heavily, changing most of my first team to get the match fitness of my subs up. Iain can sit back and tinker with his team because Arsenal’s European involvement gives them a bye to the next round. But I don’t mind that: every additional fixture brings greater understanding of my tactics and takes my players closer to peak fitness.
We weren’t impressive, but we won. That’s enough, at this stage, especially with players like Origi, Stewart, and Lovren getting match fitness. We struggle to get through a tightly packed Luton team as expected, but eventually I bring out some of the big guns. Henderson comes on and makes the difference, sending a Podolski-esque thunder bastard past Matt Macey in the Luton goal. The only downside is that our young Ukrainian prospect Kovalenko is out for four to five weeks with knee cap knack.
The draw is made for the EFL Cup third round. Guess who we get? No really. I cannot fucking wait.
IAIN: We really can’t take any chances against Bournemouth. If we come out of this with a win, everything is fine. We’re unbeaten in three, and with better luck we’d have a 100% record. But if we draw, or worse still, somehow manage to lose, I’m going to look like quite the dickhead.
With that in mind, we’ll be cautious and play with the same sort of tight-knit 4-1-4-1 I’ve used to great effect at Celtic, Aston Villa and Everton in three rather less stressful alternative universes. It’s one of three formations I’ve had the players working on since I arrived. My long term objective is to be adaptable. My short term objective is to win a fucking game of football.
I’ve had just about enough of Ramsey already, so he’s out. Mohamed Elneny can anchor the midfield, Cazorla can redistribute the wealth and Rabiot can grab the game by the nutsack and drag it around the garden. We’ll stick with Sanchez up front, but I’ve got a Giroud on the bench and I’m not afraid to use it.
This game. This bloody game. It is the same old story. The same old, boring, repetitive, tedious story and I am already beginning to loathe Arsenal. We start cautiously, but with purpose, taking our time to build our attacks. Sanchez gets the ball rolling midway through the first half, firing it straight past Artur Boruc when he picks it up deep, makes space and leathers it into the bottom corner.
He then turns provider, dropping deep again, playing in Walcott and celebrating happily as Theo surprises us all by finishing neatly. At half time, wary of how this has gone in the past, I tell them not to lower their levels. So you can guess what happens next.
Just before the hour, a time that seems to be some kind of haunted period for Arsenal, we make a mess of clearing a set-piece and Andrew Surman gets one back. Now everything changes. We blew the lead against Everton, we blew the lead at West Bromwich Albion and we are skittering about now, damp patches spreading in our shorts, doing our very best to blow the lead here.
I switch to defensive mode, I make attacking players supporting players, I bring on Xhaka to firm up the midfield. I am twisting and squirming in my seat, wringing my hands with anxiety. And then, with ten minutes left, Rabiot plays a delightful ball into Sanchez and he puts the game to bed with a cup of warm milk. We have won. Finally. On the balance of play, we should have nine points. We’ll have to make do with five.
September will bring new challenges. There will be no easy route to League Cup success. I’ll have to get past Alex to progress there and he’s started very confidently. Naturally, I have to play Bayern Munich in Europe. But we should be braver and believe that we can beat them and we should certainly be capable of getting past Bruges and Sporting. There’s nothing much wrong with this lot. They just need to stop pissing their pants mid-game and start taking their chances. I can work with them. I can improve them. We will get there. (Editor: And here is the saddest thing you’ve ever seen…)
ALEX: August’s last fixture is Watford at home, which I think will be easy until Iain, possibly trying some mind games, tells me it’ll be anything but: “They’re big and strong and they play well on the counter”, he says with a wry grin.
Is it mind games? Is he being helpful? He’s a slippery one, that Macintosh. I rotate again, bringing back my regular first teamers. It’s the Premier League, so no messing.
You know what? Iain wasn’t wrong. This Watford side are decent. Henderson opens the scoring with a looping header from a corner, but Deeney pulls one back for Watford after Janmaat’s low cross on the counter finds the Watford talisman unmarked. It’s such a peak FM17 goal I can literally predict it before it occurs.
Kevin Stewart then scores to give us back the lead; it’s a sloppy, scrambled goal, again from a corner, but it’s no more than our play has deserved. In the second half, Mane hits the post, before finally sealing the win in the second half after Behrami has been sent off for Watford. I bring Klavan on as a central midfielder and he does surprisingly well, hurtling into tackles and generally making a nuisance of himself to combat Watford’s physical, quick-countering style. It’s a good win and it puts us top of the league with seven points after three games. It’s not much, but it feels good after Rangers.
There’s a little business to do before August concludes and the window shuts, but it’s all outgoing. I loan Adam Bogdan to Ajax for half his wages and a £1.67m signing fee if he plays 20 games for them which, with Krul injured, is more than likely.
I also loan Sheyi Ojo to Swansea because first team football will be good for him, he can’t play against me, and they’ll pay all his £2k per week wages. Lucas Leiva is sold to Olympique Lyonnais for £7.25m, minus the £950k that I must send to Gremio. We also shed his £75k per week in wages – he’s too slow to play CB in my formation and not good enough as a CM (rather than his natural DM) to be anything other than a reserve option.
And that’s that. One month down, some new players in, some old players out, three wins and a draw from competitive games, and Iain struggling. There’s really nothing more I could ask for, is there?
Guess what? FM17 is free to play this weekend (March 23rd – 26th). Click here for all the details on how to get your Football Manager fix.
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.