THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and…well…just try as hard as you can, eh?
THE CATCH: This game is really difficult. Alex Stewart has already washed his hands of Liverpool and while the first season brought a Champions League semi-final and a third place finish for Arsenal, it wasn’t exactly straight-forward.
Episode 1; Episode 2; Episode 3; Episode 4; Episode 5; Episode 6; Episode 7; Episode 8; Episode 9; Episode 10; Episode 11; Episode 12; Episode 13; Episode 14; Episode 15; Episode 16; Episode 17; Episode 18; Episode 19; Episode 20; Episode 21; Episode 22
With a place in the League Cup semi-finals secured thanks to our second string (and a little help from their friends), we’ll revert to the first team for this tricky trip to Elland Road. It feels counterintuitive to rest players for a big cup game and then recall them for an away game against a newly promoted bottom half side, but look at the league table. You only have to draw a game and it could cost you six places. But I’m feeling quite positive now. After a frustrating start to the season, there are just a few signs that the players might finally be…you know…getting it.
I’ve made a small tweak to the Gooner Protocol. I’ve never really minded that the goalkeepers punt the ball up the field to Alexis Sanchez because, even though he never wins it, the opposition always seem scramble into action, lose their shape and successfully head the ball straight back to my midfielders. But now that we have a consistent shape and ideology, and now that the players are as settled as they’re going to be, I think it might be worth having the ball rolled out to the full backs instead, allowing us to build moves from the back on our terms. And they said that this game would make me boring and obsessive.
Just occasionally, too occasionally, this game actually reinforces your self-worth. For all the times that it leaves you hunched over with doubt, for all the times that your stomach clenches up like a fist as another goal goes in, these moments shine a light in the darkness.
We have a new corner routine this season. It’s very simple. All of our biggest players take up advanced positions, luring all of the defenders with them. Adrien Rabiot plays it short to Theo Walcott and he smashes it to the edge of the D where Alexis Sanchez waits, unmarked. And that’s how we open the scoring. Seventeen minutes later, my heart soars. As Leeds attack, Theo Walcott presses, wins the ball and meep-meeps up the right flank. As his tiny feet thump the turf, his team-mates charge up to support him. Walcott reaches the byline, turns and plays a low, sweet baby Jesus, a low cross towards the penalty spot where Sanchez spanks it home first time. By half-time, I have my feet on the desk, a cigarette in my mouth and the warmest post-coital glow I’ve ever felt with my trousers on.
We have already qualified for the second stage of the Champions League, but it would be nice to do it as group winners. Internazionale have only failed to win one game, the one they lost to us, and they lead us by a single point. We’re quite fresh after Leeds, with the exception of poor Rabiot who did his hammy, and so I’ll make just a handful of changes. Sandro can come in for Sanchez, Gray for Walcott and Chambers for Danilo.
What a curious tussle. Inter have much the better of the first half, a period that passes without a single Arsenal chance of note. Words are exchanged at the break, but the next 30 minutes pass entirely without incident. That’s okay though. A draw is fine.
I cling to this conclusion when Sandro hits the post from point blank range and is then denied by Samir Handanovic in a one-on-one moments later. Inter have had more chances, but we have had much better ones. But then, in the first minute of injury time, Jack Wilshere pokes a pass through for Sandro, who beats two men to the ball, cuts inside and thrashes the ball into the bottom corner from an awkward angle. We’ve won. We’ve topped the group too. I didn’t really expect that.
Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace are, it barely needs saying, a very different proposition. He plays a very defensive, flat back five and there’s little to be gained in the Gooner Protocol’s ideals of safety-first, counter attack. We need the Klopp Protocol. And the fresh legs of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott to stretch them. And a return to the first team for Santi Cazorla.
Garry Monk has been quietly altering West Brom since replacing Tony Pulis, turning them from the sort of resolute defensive block that Old Arsenal would have had problems breaking down into the sort of free-spirited attacking team that both Old Arsenal and New Arsenal would be confident of beating, especially at home.
Nevertheless, no chances will be taken. We’re missing the first choice midfield, thanks to injuries to Rabiot and Ramsey, so we’ll play it safe here. And, of course, we’ll return to Gooner Protocol. That way we can let Monk’s side attempt to express themselves and then cut them to pieces as soon as they do.
Well, that went better than I expected. For those who said that Sanchez should play wide right and that Olivier Giroud should lead the line, there’s another reminder that Sanchez is actually quite good up front. Not only did we cut them to pieces as soon as they tried to express themselves, but we hit them with four Sanchez goals inside the first 17 minutes.
Monk took action at the break and shut the game down to prevent a humiliation, leading to a second half with no highlights whatsoever, but I can live with that. I can even live with Walcott attempting half a dozen high crosses, mostly because one of them was headed home by Sanchez. Mention must be made too of Jack Wilshere, who has taken his second chance at my Arsenal in a way he probably won’t with the real Arsenal. And with Leicester City slipping away, we’re starting to open up a little gap at the top of the table.
It’s all looking good, but there’s still so much more we could do. For example, we’re top of the league for completed crosses now, but ranked only 17th for cross completion percentage. That’s not good enough. That’s just wasteful.
We’re top of the league for goals from corners, but with only six from 17 games, that’s not good enough either. Perhaps we can do something about those numbers against Swansea, who are already embroiled in another relegation battle. We’ve now won seven games on the spin in all competitions, conceding only twice (both against West Ham) in the process. Those are numbers that I actually do like and so, with a week off after this, I’ll keep the team as unchanged as possible.
A better team than Swansea would have beaten us here. It feels odd to reflect on a 3-0 win away from home and consider it a bad day, but this victory was unconvincing and came at a great cost. Sanchez will be out for two weeks and Walcott will be out for four. In seven days we play Manchester United. And while Alex Iwobi’s two headed goals were as important as they were unexpected, they both came from high crosses and they both came after long, barren spells of play. Sandro’s third was simply the product of a morale-sapped Swansea titting around on the edge of their own box. We’re five points clear at the top of the table and I’m still not happy.
In terms of form, momentum and spirit, we’re in excellent shape ahead of this trip to Old Trafford. Our clash in the penultimate game of the season will probably be the biggest game of the campaign, but this is essentially the biggest game so far. So it is, if I’m being picky, a little disappointing that we’re missing five first team players. There’s no Sanchez, Walcott or Ramsey, Walcott’s understudy Oxlade Chamberlain is out too and Adrien Rabiot is only ready for the bench. Mathieu Debuchy is out too, but that’s less of a problem than it used to be.
Obviously, we’ll be playing the Gooner Protocol. We’ll be as strong as we possibly can too. And let’s look at this way: It’s a really good chance for Sandro, Gray and the others to make a point to me. I just hope that that point isn’t: You need a better squad.
There is nothing to take from this. It’s a grim game, a dire war of attrition with so much shithousery that it’s a shitstreetery. United take the lead through a wonderfully taken Antony Martial goal, a deft chip from the edge of the box after Demarai Gray trips over his own feet and gives the ball away.
United aren’t better than us, but they seem to want it more. We can’t link up our passes, our moves keep breaking under their press and though neither team creates much in the way of opportunities, they have the lead and they never look like losing it.
With six minutes to go, Danilo is sent off for a second bookable offence. And that’s the end of that. Insult is added to injury when Ainsley Maitland Niles absently tosses a cross straight into David de Gea’s arms and the Spaniard punts the ball upfield for Marcus Rashford to score a second. We were shit. They were marginally less shit. And on such narrow margins, titles are won and lost.
After long contemplation, a stiff drink and only the briefest spell of tears, I get back on the horse. Okay, so we just blew a chance to open up an enormous lead at the top of the table and emboldened our rivals with an upsettingly stagnant display of non-football, but hey, we’ve still got our health. Actually, only some of us have got our health. We’re missing loads of key players. And we’re in the middle of the busiest period of the season.
But look, it’s Christmas soon and we’ve got Bournemouth away. They’re bottom with just ten points. This is the best chance we could have been given to get back on track. But I’m making sweeping changes wherever I can. Partly as an act of retribution, partly because we’ve got Liverpool in two days.
In the past, I’d have been a little disappointed with a day like this, but I’ve come to learn a few things over the past two years and one of them is this: When you’ve just been beaten in front of everybody, you take any sort of win in the next game because it will stop the internet laughing at you.
We were flat in the first half and only improved slightly in the second, taking the lead through a wonderful Sandro goal and then holding it thanks to judicious use of the Castle Protocol. We should have scored more; Rabiot hit the bar twice and we dominated possession, but frankly, I’m all out of fucks. Every other top six team won. We had to win too.
And so we close out the month with the visit of Liverpool. It’s been six months since Alex left and it’s become apparent that he was making them look good. Without him, they’ve crashed out of contention for honours, spending much of the season in the bottom half of the table. Mesut Ozil, procured from me for £32m, has been okay, but not fantastic, a feeling with which I can certainly sympathise.
Well, if you ever moaned at Alex for Liverpool’s poor performances, you owe him an apology. They really are terrible now. We took the lead quickly through Sandro, and then lost it again through Laurent Koscielny, both goals the result of static defending.
But it really didn’t require much for us to regain the lead. Liverpool were desperately vulnerable and we had no problems at all in making chances. Sandro took advantage for another goal on half an hour and then Virgil van Dijk wrapped up the points with a tap in after an impossibly long goalmouth scramble. It’s our 15th win of the season and, generally, you can win a title with 23.
As 2017 turns into 2018, I’m beginning to wonder if we can actually pull this off. I need one more player, a midfielder, and a New Year without any serious injuries. But we’re getting there. We’re really, really getting there.
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.