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; Episode 6
IAIN: November was bad. Really, really bad. I mean, it hadn’t exactly been good before then. But boy, are we in trouble now. I take a few days out to have a think about stuff. The usual stuff. Am I hopelessly incompetent? Should I just set fire to my laptop and walk away to reinvent myself in the Highlands as a grumpy postman with a dark secret? Have I been too hard on Aaron Ramsey?
No, I am not *hopelessly* incompetent. Yes, I am an idiot. I am led by my emotions and I make stupid mistakes. But I’ve been through worse than this on Football Manager and survived. I did well with Everton (privately), Aston Villa (privately) and Celtic (eventually). I can turn this around.
When I arrive at my office, I find a fancy tactics board waiting for me. It was ordered for the FM Cup last week, but it’s only just turned up. I don’t know what to do with it, but I’m taking it as a sign. It’s not you. It’s your tactics.
Work begins on the new @FM17Project today and I think this unused FM Cup prop could come in really handy. pic.twitter.com/yRSUVoF5ZL
— Iain Macintosh (@iainmacintosh) May 9, 2017
As you’ll know, I prefer the Cobra Protocol. It’s a compact 4-1-4-1 that robs the opposition of space and gives us the opportunity to strike out swiftly, banging the ball out onto the flanks and cutting it back low for the calvary charge of attacking midfielders. But it’s not a good fit for Arsenal. It means Mesut Ozil has to play as a deep-lying playmaker, which he hates. It means Olivier Giroud sits on the bench, which he hates. It means we can’t use any of our attacking midfielders in the way they’d prefer, which they hate.
In short, it’s a good tactic for a different squad. I’ve tried multiple alternative tactics to make the best of my resources, but it’s slowly becoming apparent that the best use of my resources would be to mince the bastards into paste and sell them as sausages.
We’ve got Watford as well, which is never nice. The Cobra formation is nullified by a back three, so I can’t go with that. Instead, I opt for a 4-4-2. We’ll be out-numbered in the middle, but if the full-backs and the wingers are aggressive, we can double-man Watford on the flanks. I move the central midfielders to defensive or deep roles to fill the gap and hope that we get them before they get us. It’s time for a dramatic revival. Say hello to the Phoenix Protocol.
For 20 minutes, the Phoenix Protocol works like a dream. Watford’s wing-backs have twisted blood and we are firing in crosses with impunity. Giroud smashes home the opener from Bellerin’s cross and I’m eagerly awaiting the comfortable victory I need to stabilise my campaign. But then, midway through the first half, it all just stops.
Suddenly it’s Watford making chance after chance, pouring through our midfield. I consider a change, but elect to leave it until half time. I am an idiot. Five minutes before the break, M’Baye Niang equalises. I bollock them, but there’s no sign of any improvement. In fact, as the hour ticks over, I note with a grimace that we haven’t made a single chance since the 20th minute.
I pull off the anoynmous Alexis Sanchez and replace him with Ozil at the tip of the midfield. That seems to make a difference and the chances come again. In the last minute, victory is served up on a silver platter. Nacho Monreal cuts the ball back, Lucas Perez is there to capitalise, but he’s felled by Craig Cathcart. We have a penalty. Santi Cazorla, my most trusted lieutenant steps up…and misses. Something inside me is lost forever. I think it’s hope.
ALEX: November, dark and cruel. It’s only a small crumb of comfort that Macintosh struggled too, but defeats to Everton and Palace were bad, even if we finished with three points against Liverpool B.
Coming off the back of that win against Southampton, we have Leicester at home to look forward to as December begins with promise – but, rather than focus on a potential upswing in our fortunes, the media take the bold step of asking me about Mark Hughes placing Glenn Whelan on the transfer list. There is no “I couldn’t give a tu’penny fuck” option, so I suggest I’d side with the manager.
I stay with my team selection for our game against the lacklustre incumbent champions, except for drafting back the now-fit Henderson in place of Stewart. We are close to full strength, I think. In fact, we are full strength. This is good.
We take control almost from the off. Firmino hits the post after some nice interplay, before bursting into space moments later and pulling the ball across for Sturridge to score. Moreno adds a second, shooting through Ron-Robert ‘Bagel’ Zieler. Andy King then puts the ball into his own net and we are 3-0 up after 25 minutes.
Iain put seven past these muppets; can I beat that? It’s certainly possible, as a Coutinho cross is then steered past the hapless Zieler by Huth: 4-0 with half an hour gone. With ten minutes to go, Henderson adds a direct free-kick to make it 5-0. Okazaki nets a consolation after Milner gives away a free-kick on the edge of the box but we are otherwise dominant, with Moreno giving a man-of-the-match performance. We have 61% possession and nine shots on target; I’ll take that, especially with Iain slipping up against Watford.
IAIN: The day after the Watford game, the squad turn on me. Led by the frustrating Ozil, they decide that it’s me who is holding Arsenal back. They disgust me. Had it not been for their feckless mistakes, we wouldn’t have dropped so many points. We’re not far off. But we’re not so good that we can carry half a team of worms with us.
But I can’t tell them any of this. I have to play long range politics here just to survive. And so I tell them that I accept their concerns and that I’ve come up with a new tactic to make it all better. They accept that and seem happy with themselves. Now I just need to come up with a new tactic.
Given that it’s Ozil who is leading the rebellion, I build this new plan around him. It’s a 4-4-1-1 with the big-eyed German in the number ten role, where he’s always wanted to play. I call it the Cryarse Protocol. Of course, he’ll find it a little harder away at Bayern Munich and he might even get embarrassed, but then he should have thought about that before he plunged his dagger between my shoulders.
We’ll take that. The new tactic is entirely ineffectual and Bayern dominate the game. We go one down before half time and Alexis Sanchez is withdrawn with an injury. I pick up my phone and start to search my contacts for the LMA’s number. But then, out of nowhere, Cazorla lashes one in from distance. I put the phone back down.
Two minutes later, we give away a penalty, but Arturo Vidal is from the Cazorla school of spot kicks and belts it wide. I’ve had more than enough of this, so I switch to defensive mode, we hang on for the point, top the group, I drop the mike and go to the pub.
ALEX: We are in 5th but Iain has dropped to 8th and seems to be suffering some sort of Ozil-driven existential crisis. My squad, on the other hand, are buoyant, and Divock Origi has been tipped to win the European Golden Boy, which is less weird than it sounds. And my style of football is being praised by the nerds. And, perhaps more importantly, the Board go from ‘satisfied’ to ‘pleased’.
Next up are Stoke and, as we all know, the big news there is Whelan’s shock transfer-listing. The media suggest we need to avoid complacency, and I think they have a point – Stoke can be tough to break down and have a few players capable of whumping it in from distance. I make no changes because rhythm is everything, or so I’ve been told.
We start in a rather drab fashion, appropriate in the pissing rain, but then Can nods down a Coutinho corner and Clyne rifles it in and we have a 1-0 lead. Diouf almost equalises after robbing Nastasic before hitting the post, but we break quickly and Firmino scores to take a 2-0 lead into half-time.
Sturridge then picks up a clearing header, releases Firmino into the half-space, who carries it forwards before cutting it back to a late arriving Coutinho – 3-0 and a peach of a goal. I bring on Origi and Mane for Sturridge and Coutinho, before yanking a tiring Henderson for Lallana, with Can shifting into the ball-winning slot. We see out the game in dominant fashion and I am very pleased, especially as I can hear Iain having palpitations against Burnley.
We are up to 3rd, although 2nd place United have a game in hand.
IAIN: We really do need to beat Burnley, you know. We have dropped so many silly points now that, actually, we need to go through the rest of the month beating everyone. We’re out of wiggle room. But it’s Burnley, isn’t it? Burnley away. No Arsenal team enjoys Burnley away. In order to keep Ozil happy, I stick to the Cryarse Protocol.
It’s not pretty, it’s not comfortable, but it’s three points. For so long, it was so typical. We started well again, we made chances, we took the lead through Adrian Rabiot and then we just…we just switched off. Within four minutes of our celebrations, Sam Vokes had equalised with Burnley’s first chance and the rest of the half was distinctly uncomfortable.
Once again, Ozil was absolute crap, so I hooked him on 55 minutes, replacing him with Olivier Giroud and shifting back to the Phoenix Protocol. And with that, the game changed. Sanchez quickly teed up the big bottomed French striker for the winner and, though it was very generous of Joey Barton to get himself sent off, we never looked like losing the lead against eleven Burnley players, let alone ten. Which must be a fucking first for this lot.
ALEX: Next up, we travel to Hull. I decide to rest Sturridge and bring in Origi, and rotate Coutinho with Lallana. Hull were recently on the end of an 8-0 shellacking by Manchester City and so they shouldn’t pose too many awkward questions; we also have City at home after the Tigers, so I need to keep my two most potent attackers fresh.
I also bring Wijnaldum back into the squad – he’s been a bit whiny about a lack of chances and I want to sub one of Henderson or Milner during this game, again with the City match in mind, so two birds, etc.
We don’t exactly leap out of the traps, but rather build slowly. Origi forces a fine save from Marshall before picking up a shin injury; I bring on Mane as a false nine and push Firmino to a more attacking striker’s role. Shortly afterwards, Lallana drifts in a free-kick and Matip – well Matip just WANTED IT MORE. 1-0 us. It’s snowing, too, which is nice.
Mane then crosses for Firmino and it’s 2-0. Mason pulls one back after a superb Grosicki assist, but another Mane assist for Firmino makes it 3-1 and safe. We’re 4th after United win their game in hand, and Iain’s Arsenal are breathing down my neck in 5th (if you know what I mean).
IAIN: And so onto West Ham and there’s just the slightest feeling of momentum now. I want to go on with the 4-4-2 for a bit longer. Maybe there’s something in this. We still can’t play the attacking trinity of Sanchez, Giroud and Ozil, but given that Ozil has been about as useful to me in this campaign as Carl Jenkinson, that’s not great loss. But just imagine it. Half a season of experimentation and the answer turns out to be 4-4-2.
Jesus Henry Christ, what is wrong with these people? What is wrong with them? Why can’t they do anything right? EVER? We start well. Laurent Koscielny heads home from a corner (which makes us the second most effective team on set pieces) and we take the lead. Then Sanchez and Giroud combine for a second. All lovely. Then, just as half time is approaching, Jeff Reine-Adelaide tosses a cross to the far post and it loops in.
“Now then lads,” I say at half-time. “Don’t get complacent. A lot can change in football.” And so it fucking proves. In the space of 60 catastrophic seconds, it’s 3-2, because even Jonathan pissing Calleri doesn’t need asking twice to burst through sleepy lines or slip home idiotic back passes.
I will not reveal the extent of my anger, suffice to say that shortly afterwards there was a tentative knock at the door, a concerned office neighbour making sure everything was all right. It was all right. My laptop sustained the blow with a resilience that pays the late Steve Jobs a great compliment. I switch to defensive mode and we hold out for the win. But I’m not even nearly happy.
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.