THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and beat your bitter rival to claim glory in the Scottish Premiership and bragging rights in Glasgow.
THE CATCH: The Everton challenge did not end well. Can Iain Macintosh bounce back to build a homegrown empire at Celtic? Or will Alex Stewart’s meddling Moneyballing ways bring silverware to Rangers? The Set Pieces’ money is on an Aberdeen treble…
IAIN: I feel quite sick. Again. Nausea is a frequent visitor in my life now that I’m the Celtic manager. When I was the Everton manager, there were always games that I wasn’t expected to win. Like…well…most of the games. But as Celtic manager, you’re expected to win everything and win it in style.
We have fallen well short in both departments thus far. This, though, is the most important moment of the season. If we can go away to Rosenborg and get something, we’ve got a great chance of making the Champions League group stages. That means an enormous windfall, a swelling chest full of pride and, in all likelihood, a certain amount of fireproofing vizavee my position as manager. So, no pressure.
There are just a few problems. We have no senior centre-backs. I deeply regret allowing Mikael Lustig to leave for Swansea now. £3.5m is all well and good for a 29-year-old, but you can’t play a sack full of cash in your back four. I’ve just got Eoghan O’Connell, Jamie McCart and a rising sensation that I’m about to puke in the bin. Given that our attacking mentality led to a humiliating gubbing at the hands of St Johnstone, I’m going for the defensive formation here. I’m also bringing Scott ‘Chopper’ Brown back in the team, despite his two red cards. We need leaders. And people who can tackle. And perhaps a miracle.
Celtic v Rosenborg in the Football Manager project Champions League play-off with Iain Macintosh…
Pah! Who needs miracles? We did that with nothing more than hard work, organisation and a steely composure the likes of which I am unaccustomed to seeing in my players. Weirdly, we were far more of an attacking force with a defensive mentality than we are with an attacking mentality that leaves us incapable of defending ourselves.
I switched the full-backs to attack and overlap, which gave us the width we needed to find a way through. On the hour Tom Rogic found Cristian Gamboa on the flank, his ball was perfect and Moussa Dembele did what Moussa Dembele does. After that, it was just a question of resisting the urge to go for the throat and accepting that a 1-0 win in Norway will do very nicely, ta. Not that Alex thinks so. In fact, if anything he appears profoundly underwhelmed by my result. But then he is living with the horrifying reality of Philippe Senderos, so I guess we have to understand if he doesn’t smile much anymore.
ALEX: My team are a curate’s egg at the moment: sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. And it’s starting to get frustrating. I’m not used to having so many red dots piling up on the schedule list, even if our most recent fixture brought an emphatic win.
I’m not happy with the way we’re playing. While there’s no point in tinkering for the sake of it, football doesn’t stand still. You need to adapt to survive. I started off employing a standard formation I’ve used successfully with other clubs, but I don’t feel the slower style – which focuses on retaining possession – is working that well. The squad is young and players whose strength ratings are quite low can be easily muscled off the ball when trying to play a retention-based game.
We do, however, have some quite quick players, and both Wallace and Tavernier are doing very well from full-back, creating the majority of our chances. The defence is otherwise still weak and Danny Wilson, the only centre-back I really trust, is rather knack-prone. The sense that I need to make drastic changes gnaws away at me while Iain sets up for his first leg clash against Rosenborg. I’m actually in the same room as him this time and, delightfully, it’s not in Sunderland, but rather the august surroundings of TSP HQ.
What could possibly have happened in Celtic’s game against Motherwell to wipe the smile off Iain Macintosh’s face?
Oddly, I don’t see a bunker – maybe Iain’s constant retreats are of the metaphorical, or even metaphysical, form? As I ponder this, he is earning a hard-fought and, to be fair, quite well managed 1-0 win in the away leg against the Norwegian ‘giants’. I make some notes: can’t pass, can’t shoot, can’t cross, and utterly screwed if Dembélé gets injured. Well, I know which player I’ll be targeting for some brutality in the Old Firm game, anyway.
Iain celebrates his goal with an intensity only the truly desperate can muster, and I ponder digging out some stats on the Tippeligaen’s UEFA co-efficient to contextualise his ‘achievement’. But the germ of an idea is taking shape in my mind, a wholesale tactical change that will revitalise my as yet unconvincing team.
It worked for Antonio Conte, so it can work for me. I am switching to three at the back for my game against Hearts. Versus Partick, the focus of my passing was generally from the back, through Rossiter or Poyet, and then out wide. I bring McKay into a central role again, and push Wallace and Tavernier up into wing-back roles. The midfield axis is the same, but 16-year-old Zak Rudden is handed a start as a target man centre-forward alongside Macheda. I also bring in the McCrorie brothers, one as a covering, ball playing centre-back, the other as a sweeper keeper. I’d tell you which was which, but to be honest I struggle to tell them apart, even now. It’s a bold decision, dropping Wes Foderingham and bringing in a 18-year-old prospect with only two stars as a current rating, but I hope with a back three and energetic wing backs, he’ll be given enough cover.
Hmm. Well, we lost. 1-0 away to a decent side, a goal from Connor Sammon that was, to be fair to the bald shite, very well taken and enough to give Hearts the victory. We played poorly, mustering only eight shots, two of which were on target. But the shape looked quite decent.
We are still getting muscled off the ball, losing 45% of our tackles. My flippant remark from what seems like aeons ago about not being very good at jumping – and how that didn’t really matter – was terribly, terribly short-sighted: we lost 57% of our headers, constantly ceding possession and territory. Having said that, my starting XI had an average age of 22.5 years and both McCrories did well on their starting debut. Rudden fluffed his only good chance and was yanked at half time for Dodoo, but otherwise, as a building block for my tactical transition, it could have been worse.
IAIN: While our European adventures are improving morale, we really need some results in the league. That defeat to St Johnstone and the goalless draw with Dundee has left us at the bottom of the table, which I really didn’t expect. Motherwell at home is a chance to repair the damage.
There’s good news from the physio; I’m able to field Dedryk Boyata, still short of sharpness, but perfectly capable of playing. That means poor McCart can drop back to the U20s. Mind you, those games have given his attributes a dramatic lift, so it’s not the end for him. That’s the only change to personnel, but there will be a shift in tactics. The 4-1-4-1 gives us the stability we need at the back. Perhaps if I move from ‘defensive’ to ‘control’ we’ll get the edge we need in attack as well. We have to be fluid, we have to be able to support Dembele. But if it works, we’ll be the sort of team that’s hard to beat and hard to stop. And that’s the polar opposite of how my teams usually end up.
Yeah…we’re still not getting it. And we’ve got a new problem. Chopper Brown has been sent off AGAIN. That’s three red cards in six games. I am entirely unsure of how to proceed. I mean…I can’t pick him anymore, that’s a given. He’s a liability. But what do I do with him? Declaring war on my captain is unlikely to endear me to the squad and yet, I have to make some sort of stand because this galaxy class stupidity cannot be tolerated. I fine him two weeks wages and drop him. He’s not happy. He’s not the only one.
As for the game, it was more of the same. We started reasonably well, we made a couple of excellent chances and spurned them both, we messed up once at the back and got away with it, and gradually the game ebbed away from us. On another day, we might have had a penalty, we might have seen better finishing from Dembele, we might have scored in the last moment when Nadir Ciftci lofted in a cross that nearly beat the goalkeeper. But none of those things happened today. Today, we just drew 0-0.
We’re now in a position where all we need to do is not fuck up. It’s Rosenborg at home. We were comfortable winners in Norway, now we just need to be comfortable not-losers in Scotland. We’ll stick with control, we’ll keep the full-backs overlapping, we’ll stick with the 4-1-4-1 shape that has given us four clean sheets on the bounce. Callum McGregor comes in for Chopper Brown, but that’s the extent of our changes. We have options on the bench, should we need to chase the game, but by thunder, I hope that doesn’t happen. The next 90 minutes could define the campaign.
Celtic v Rosenborg 2nd leg, with Iain Macintosh…
That was so straight-forward, it was almost an anti-climax. Dembele scored a fine goal after 14 minutes and we never looked back. The Norwegians barely threatened, we bounced the ball off the woodwork twice, but really just to keep up appearances.
After an hour, we switched to defensive mode and just calmly saw out the game. Yes, I accept that it’s a bit cynical, but frankly, who cares? We’re in the Champions League group stage. We have our snouts in the cash trough. I have achieved one of my major objectives for the season. Atletico Madrid, Basle and CSKA Moscow await this winter and, let’s be honest, that could have been a lot worse. I feel a strange sense of calm. This is most unusual.
ALEX: Tactics in Football Manager are a funny thing. It’s actually the part of the game I least enjoy setting up, preferring to tinker with scouting assignments, finding players, and building the back room and training facilities. But you can’t win a game by simply finding good players and then telling them to ‘fucking run around a bit’ (although Harry Redknapp’s fourth place finish in 2012 is the highest recently achieved by an English gaffer, so who knows really?).
There’s also the kneejerk reaction to be avoided – change for change’s sake in the aftermath of a galling defeat. I’ve looked long and hard at what my squad are good at, where they are weak, and what personnel are available (more than one good striker, but a weakness at centre-back and in central midfield if Rossiter and/or Poyet are injured). The change to 5-2-1-2 (or 3-4-1-2, if you like) is predicated on the sort of thoughtful rumination that I try to bring to the rest of my management. Crucially, too, I need to stick with it: the players will grow in understanding of the system over time, and a defeat or two shouldn’t throw me off course. I’ve seen Iain’s switchback style of bossing up close and personal and, let me tell you, panic is not pretty.
Having said that, my adversary guides his side to another 1-0 win, this time at home, to seal a 2-0 aggregate pasting of the Norwegian champions and a place in the group stages of the Champions League. Secretly, I’m delighted. Although ua new football types are all sangfroid and spreadsheets, because it means that Iain will have the rigours of European competition straining his squad to the limit, which will hopefully allow me to capitalise. If it’s Liverpool’s best chance of winning the league, it’s also mine.
So I quietly press on, scouting, compiling lists, making tweaks here and there, setting up youth training schedules, building my dynasty while Iain whoops with glee at his European exploits. And with two domestic fixtures before the Old Firm derby, things are bubbling along nicely.
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 six full leagues (Scotland, England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).