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.
Arsenal v Liverpool: Episode 1; Episode 2; Episode 3; Episode 4; Episode 5
EDITOR’S NOTE: You may be under the impression that you have already seen Alex’s clash with Iain during a live stream from our Glasgow event. You may have memories of some kind of hard-fought, end-to-end 2-2 draw. You are wrong. It never happened. There was no 2-2 draw, there were no problems turning a hotseat game back into a link-up game, there was no hour-long attempt to fix the problem and absolutely no-one tearfully came to the conclusion that we should just revert to the back-up save and play the fixture again. None of these things happened. You’re imagining things. You’ve been working too hard. Never speak of this again.
IAIN: Even though we’re not quite where I’d like us to be in the league, I’m broadly happy with the way the first part of the season has gone. We haven’t had a disastrous start, as I did back at Celtic, we’ve had some fine results, we’re doing well in Europe and we’re tactically versatile, in that we’re quite capable of dropping points in any formation. If we can just become a little more consistent and turn those unfortunate draws into unwarranted wins, we’ll be fine.
Liverpool present an interesting challenge though. They’re out of form, but I can see from Alex’s furrowed brow that he’s working on a plan to put that right. He’s not the only one. I spend 20 minutes re-doing my set-pieces, the crown jewel of which is an elegantly conceived short corner routine that seeks to lure all the defenders to the back post, then work the ball to the edge of the box for an unmarked Sanchez to welly one.
ALEX: And so we are back. After a hiatus of several weeks, while we travelled the land in search of the best FM managers in the FM17 Cup, we’re home again, among the worst. Yes, Iain and I are at it again. Not like that.
In an alternate universe, Iain and I played out a draw in the Liverpool vs Arsenal game. But that alternate universe only existed in Glasgow (like so many others), and so we play again, away from the cameras and in the roiling cauldron of TSP Towers, as close and sweaty as a desert Portaloo.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the players but the anticipation of getting one over on Iain at long last sharpens my attention. I decide on the 4-1-2-3 (DM) as it seemed to unsettle him last time, and use Can as the deep playmaker behind Kovalenko and Henderson, with Mane, Coutinho, and Sturridge up front. The back four stays as is, and I cannot wait for Nathaniel Clyne to return to fitness as TAA isn’t really ready for the big leagues yet.
IAIN: There is something profoundly wrong at the heart of this football club. These are not men. They look like men, but they have no substance. They are but shadows of men. And I despise them. I am not a cruel man. I am patient and understanding. I accept mistakes as part of the process of learning. I know that every now and then, someone drops a bollock. But fuck my old boots, I can’t walk across this fucking pitch without tripping over strewn testicles. What is wrong with these people? What is actually wrong with them?
We started so well. The corner routine paid off first time, though not quite as planned. It was Gabriel, of all people, who scored. And then Adrien Rabiot played a needless long range back pass that neither Laurent Koscielny nor Petr Cech wanted to claim. Daniel Sturridge did though. 1-1.
Two minutes later, the entire defence goes into standby mode and Sadio Mane makes it 2-1. Alex’s laughter can be heard from the fucking moon. After a full and frank exchange of views at the break, Theo Walcott draws us level, a typical Arsenal goal scored from a low cross by the overlapping Nacho Monreal.
But then…and I can taste blood in my mouth while I type this…Alexis Sanchez plays a needless long range back pass which is of course gratefully accepted by Daniel Sturridge. 3-2. Five minutes later, as we push up to retrieve the game. Divock Origi makes it 4-2. The only person I can rely on is Theo Walcott, who gets up top to play Olivier Giroud in for a consolation goal. But it’s not much of a consolation really, is it? We’ve given them a two goal head start and lost by one. I’m furious.
ALEX: Things do not begin well. Gabriel scores from a corner, moments after Iain informs me he has a new corner routine. “But that wasn’t it”, he informs me ruefully. Sturridge then equalises after what I can only call a defensive fuck up, as Koscielny and Cech swap looks rather than clear the ball, and the striker steals in.
Mane then scores, but Arsenal pull one back. And then, as sure as night follows day, Arsenal fuck up again, Sanchez putting the ball on a plate for Sturridge to poach his second. Origi, on as a sub, adds the fourth after I go to a 4-1-2-1-2, trusting in Iain’s inability to coax his players into passing properly and funnelling all my attacks through the middle while he tries to go out wide. It works and we gain a valuable three points and move up to 5th in the table.
IAIN: What I need is a nice, easy fixture to get our head straight. What I’ve got is a North London derby. That means I can’t really experiment. I have to play it safe. We’ll stick with 4-1-4-1 and hope that this time we can avoid any unpleasantness. I’ve lost Theo Walcott to injury on international duty, but Santi Cazorla is back and he seems like one of the few grown-ups in this desperate collective of sponge-brained, damp-panted skulkrins. God, I hate them.
We start well, but a Spurs break on the half hour sends Harry Kane clear and we’re losing and I’ve had enough. I’ve just had enough. I’ve played this game with Everton (twice), Aston Villa and Celtic, weaker teams in every case, and it’s been better than this. Even that first game with Everton was bett…well, maybe that’s pushing it. But I’m broken. Arsenal have world class footballers, loads of them, and yet I wouldn’t trust them not to piss in their own bath water.
I’m considering my future as half time approaches when Mesut Ozil tosses in a cross for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to loop home a header. Regardless of this, I tell them that they haven’t been good enough at the break, and fuck me with a nine iron, they actually try to prove me wrong in the second half. After a number of excellent chances, we take the lead when the Ox swings one in for Rabiot to score. And they even prove themselves mature and sensible by holding onto the lead in 30 minutes of Castle Protocol. Have I turned a corner?
ALEX: Bournemouth, away – yet another game of the sort that Liverpool lose. There seem to be a few of those. I retain the 4-1-2-3 (DM), switching Henderson in the deep-lying role and playing Kovalenko and Milner in midfield. Firmino has been whinging about a lack of chances and I throw him a bone and start him ahead of Sturridge, with Mane and Coutinho again on the flanks. The back four stay as is.
The tone is set with a Matthew Targett own goal and, try as we might, we cannot string together more than a few passes. The fact that the squad are all exhausted post-international break doesn’t help, but this is woeful.
Afobe adds a second and for all my exhortations, my cajoling, my threats, we lose and slide down the table to 9th again – this side are the very definition of inconsistent. Their only consistency comes, in fact, from how regularly they are inconsistent. There’s a paradox. Schroedinger’s Lovren.
IAIN: Ideally, I’d play the same team in Europe and let them continue to settle, but these players are exhausted and they can’t play once every three days for the entire season. Besides, it’s a chance for everyone else to show what they can do.
Preparations for this one are hampered a little, however, by Alex Iwobi’s sudden desire to join Manchester City. I ask him what it would take for him to stay and he says that he wants me to build the club around him. After I stop laughing, some four hours later, I tell him there’s no chance of that happening. I have faith that my brusque dismissal will cut him down to size, but he gets really angry and says that he’s going to make my life difficult. My life already *is* difficult. But it’s my fault, I guess. I chose to take on the Arsenal job. Iwobi will spend the rest of the season offering a physical example to the academy kids of how even the most promising career can go badly wrong if you act the twat with me.
IAIN: We’re going to do something a bit different here. For starters, we’ll rest players for the league fixture on Saturday. It’s Middlesbrough at home and I need three points so bad it hurts. But we’re also going to try out a back three for size, just to find out if it works for us. I can see Watford on the horizon and they always trip me up.
Well, we can’t take too much from that. There was no noticeable improvement with the back three, we didn’t get many crosses in, we didn’t dominate. We just took the lead from an Elneny thunderbolt and then eased our way through the game.
After an hour, I switched to the Castle Protocol to try to secure the narrow win. We got all the way to the 88th minute without another highlight and then, just as I was conducting a post-match interview in my head about the beauty of my pragmatic ways, Sporting scored when our entire defence went to sleep at a corner. These people. They are the bane of my life.
ALEX: Our next game is away at Liverpool B, or Southampton as everyone else calls them (this breaks my heart as an IRL Saints fan but narrative will out). I hope that their exhaustion following a midweek European game will help me because, at the moment, nothing else seems to be on my side.
I am able to field Clyne, and I recall Moreno for Targett after his shower of a performance last time out. Henderson is a doubt and so, rather than risk a key player, I chuck Stewart in. We switch to a 4-3-1-2, a harbinger of good passing and possession stats at Rangers (remember them?)
Ahh yes. That is more like it. Firmino scores a peach, cannoning off the post and in, to open our account, before Stewart drags one back for Milner to score. At half-time, I bring Stewart off because he’s unfit and on a yellow, shift Can across to a ball-winning role and bring on a Lallana to create from the centre of the midfield three.
Origi comes on for Sturridge and then Kovalenko replaces the tiring Coutinho. With ten to go, we shut it down, playing patient defensive football and keeping the ball. It works well, though Karius has to make a superb save towards the end to keep our sheet clean. I’ll take a 2-0 away at Southampton any day, especially after recent results. It moves us to 6th, one place behind Iain’s Gooners on goal difference alone.
Back in the saddle and winning, a bit at least. It’s something, I suppose. We’re still flawed, but we’re developing. The story of Liverpool, eh?
IAIN: There is to be no messing around here. I want the Grizzly Protocol and I want Mesut Ozil to be given the freedom of the park and dropped in behind Alexis Sanchez. We go at Middlesbrough and we go at them quickly. They’re bottom of the table. I want this done by half time. I want to get back into that title race and, ideally, make Alex look bad.
Arsenal. I am growing to loathe Arsenal. We spend 45 minutes titting about with the ball, spraying it around, marking little pissy patterns for the boys at Opta and, obviously, we barely create a chance of note. Not good enough.
I bollock them at half time and we shift into the Cobra Protocol, but with an attacking mentality. Five minutes later, Theo Walcott floats a gorgeous ball over into the box, straight to Lucas Perez. The cross beats their goalkeeper. It beats their defenders. Lucas Perez is on the edge of the six yard box and there is no-one in front of him. He hits the crossbar. He actually hits the fucking crossbar. This was a chance that makes Ronny Rosenthal’s famous effort look like a tricky one from a narrow angle.
I am physically contorted with rage. My stomach is so clenched up with fury that I won’t be able to poo until August. That man. That bloody man. I will have him melted down into paste for this humiliation. Three minutes later, Middlesbrough break and score. But, of course. It is their second effort of any kind in the game. We go with two strikers, we surge forward and naturally, 20 minutes passes without a single highlight. And then, with three minutes to go, Alexis Sanchez scores the equaliser. It does not lighten my mood for a second.
IAIN: At least we still have the League Cup, a chance to put some silverware in the cabinet early. A chance to cement my position. We’re away at Brighton and if you think I’m going to use this as an opportunity to play the kids, you’re very much mistaken. I need this trophy. We go full strength and we do not make the mistake of taking them lightly.
I hate them. I hate them all so much.
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.