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 ; Episode 23; Episode 24; Episode 25; Episode 26; Episode 27
Tottenham. Why did it have to be Tottenham? I could never have got Olympiakos in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, of course. It was Olympique Lyon, I just couldn’t read it properly through the tears of fury. But Tottenham!
I force myself to re-watch the highlights of our league meeting with them last month. It’s not pretty. But then again, it doesn’t feel like there’s any systemic fault to blame. We just passed the ball like idiots. We kept giving it away in advanced positions and then we got beaten on the break. But then we’d just been beaten in a cup final and morale wasn’t what it could be. After three back-to-back wins, we’ve fixed that issue. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m sticking with Gooner Protocol.
But I won’t be sticking with the same team. Jose Gaya has blisters, Demarai Gray has food poisoning and Granit Xhaka is tired after international duty. So it’s Kieran Gibbs, Alex Iwobi and Andre Gomes in the starting XI with Aaron Ramsey, out for yonks with injury, on the bench. We have to do better than last time. But it would be hard to do worse.
I don’t know what Mauricio Pochettino puts in the half time tea, but I’d like a large, sugar-rimmed glass of it with a cocktail umbrella, please.
For the first half, Spurs are nowhere. We take the lead when Alex Iwobi plays a low cross in for Adrien Rabiot to ripple the net from the close range. Four minutes later, we’re two up thanks to Iwobi, left alone at a free-kick by Spurs with devastating results.
But it was all change after the break, as if my decision to praise the players was taken as a signal to swap boots for flip-flops and make daisy chains in the centre-circle. Luciano Vietto scored his fourth goal against me in two games when he turned and shot past Petr Cech from the edge of the area and then he made one on the break for Erik Lamela, mystifyingly left to canter in and blast home from the edge of the box.
At this point, Pochettino appeared to settle for the draw and there were barely any more highlights. I suppose I would have taken parity and two away goals before kick-off. But even so….
It is time for a change between the sticks. Petr Cech has been excellent for me and I will always love and respect him, but he was just too slow against Spurs and too easily beaten. He hasn’t been at his best for a while and it’s time to make the change. Gianluigi Donnarumma now has a chance to cement his place in the team. And what a place to start. We can get back on track against West Ham though, right? They’re ninth, we’ve never lost to them yet. Surely that’s three points? Aaron Ramsey is the only other change, in for the as-yet-underwhelming Andre Gomes.
I really could do with Manchester United slipping up and dropping points. But they haven’t done that in a very long time. We play them at the Emirates on the penultimate game of the season. I’d really prefer for that not to be the decider.
It’s just possible that I’ve been too loyal to Petr. We make a perfect start to the game, opening the scoring with a ludicrous solo effort from Sanchez and doubling it two minutes later with a neat finish to a nice move from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
But then West Ham take control and they really have us on the back foot for a far longer time than is comfortable. Donnarumma is equal to everything. We ride out the storm, add another when Sanchez heads in a third and the game is wrapped up when Sanchez smashes home a free-kick from all of 30 yards.
Unfortunately, Manchester United win as well.
We have only conceded 19 goals this season, but six of them have been against Spurs. We seem to get caught on the break by them every time. With that in mind, I’m going to play a little deeper in this second leg, try to lure them out over the halfway line and hopefully our quickies can get behind them for a change. The team, unsurprisingly, will be unchanged. Or at least it would be if Alexis Sanchez hadn’t got himself injured right before the game.
I had a guest in the office for this match. Someone who had never seen a Football Manager game before. Someone who was politely engaged as I explained the concept of the software and how you make strategic decisions, but you have no real power over the players’ actions. He was intrigued. And then horrified as my small, windowless office began to fill up with red hot swear.
It’s possible that I’ve hit the post four times in the first half against an opponent before, but I can’t recall when it happened. It certainly hasn’t happened in a tightly balanced Champions League quarter-final second leg. As my language evolved into what had hitherto been an entirely theoretical level of obscenity, my guest made his excuses and left to check his phone.
Our ploy of sitting deeper surprised and initially neutralised Spurs as an attacking force. My players put everything into their challenges, winning their tackles and making breaks. Set-pieces and low crosses were used smartly and effectively. But we just kept hitting the fucking post.
Finally, eight minutes into the second half, Sandro smashed in a free-kick from 25 yards and we had the lead we deserved. But naturally, Spurs hit back. And it was that insufferable bastard Luciano Vietto who equalised with his 40th goal of the season. After that, there was only one option. Fresh legs in midfield and Castle Protocol. And it worked. We still haven’t beaten Spurs this season, but we have at least eradicated them from Europe. That will do.
The draw saves us from Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Instead, we’ll be up against Manchester City.
By contrast to the games we’ve had recently, Leeds at home should be fairly straightforward. But you know me and you know Arsenal and so you know that there are no straightforward games here.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is injured, so Demarai Gray will replace him. But apart from that, I’ll keep the same team in place. Is it too much to ask for Manchester United to drop points?
Yes, it is. But it’s not too much for them to ask us to drop points. We didn’t deserve to lose this, but we certainly didn’t deserve to win. We put just a single shot on target all afternoon, which is appalling for a title challenging team at home to a bottom half club. That said, I think Neil Swarbrick must have been on glue to dish out six yellow cards and one red to my players. We’re not a violent team, we never have been, and I’m stunned at the way he handled the game.
But there you go, that’s the sort of game you get when you’re missing your best defender, best winger and best goalscorer.
We can’t afford to do anything else other than beat Crystal Palace, so there’s no chance of resting any players ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final clash with City. Jack Wilshere was poor against Leeds and Andre Gomes will have a chance to prove himself. Jose Gaya will come in for Kieran Gibbs. But that’s it. Please, seriously, can Manchester United drop some points? They’ve won eight in a row now.
No, United did not drop points. But somehow, neither did we. It was not a comfortable game to watch. We were largely untroubled for the first half, but without making much of a threat ourselves. I was calm at the break. I told them they were very unlucky. They seemed to like that.
One minute into the second half, Demarai Gray ran down the right, looked up, crossed low and Sandro tapped us into the lead. It was a lovely moment, proof once again that the team’s philosophy is a good one and that, after so much frustration, they’ve got the hang of it at last. Ten minutes later, Christian Benteke equalised.
There wasn’t anything else to do but go for it. We switched to the Klopp Protocol and made three changes, including the use of Chuba Akpom as a second striker. It was, on the face of it, a high risk strategy. But was it really? A draw wasn’t going to help us. A loss wouldn’t have punished us any more than stalemate. And so we went for it.
Twelve minutes before the end, Sandro was put through, he leaned out onto the right flank, turned and crossed low to the penalty spot. Alex Iwobi’s shot hit Joel Ward and went in. We’ll take it. We’ll take anything. We’re still in it.
The last time we faced Manchester City, we lost a cup to their kids. It goes without saying that I need an improvement from my players. But they are very, very tired now. This is our sixth game of the month and we’ve still got Swansea to consider at the weekend.
Alexis Sanchez and Virgil van Dijk are back in training, but they won’t be fit for 90 minutes. We can just about get away with putting Oxlade-Chamberlain back in the side and Rabiot is clear to return. But we’re not in great shape. I just hope Serge fucking Gnabry doesn’t score against again because that is really getting on my tits.
Interesting. Very interesting! We don’t seem daunted by the occasion at all and City are indebted to Claudio Bravo for a couple of fine saves that keep them in the game.
We lose Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, thankfully just a light knock, and then we lose his replacement, Gray, for the rest of the season. But after 25 minutes, we take control. It’s then that Aaron Ramsey conjures up a goal that has more than a little of the Paul Gascoigne about it. Jose Gaya takes a throw in on the left, Alex Iwobi flicks on a header and Ramsey takes it under control with one touch, lifts it over John Stones and volleys it into the back of the net.
City can’t get back into it at all and with ten minutes left I’m happy to activate the Castle Protocol. But City are still all over the place. With two minutes left, they can’t clear their lines at a corner and Ramsey is there to blast the ball in from outside the box. Unfortunately, despite remaining in the ultra defensive Castle Protocol, we concede in injury time to Kelechi Iheanacho. I wonder how costly that will prove.
Still, a 2-1 win away at City. That’s all right.
We wrap up a marathon month with a home game against Swansea. That may seem easy enough, but remember what happened against Leeds.
Manchester United have West Bromwich Albion, but having won nine on the bounce are likely to make it ten. Assuming we win as well, which is an unwise assumption, we’ll be one point behind them when we welcome them to the Emirates for the penultimate game of the season. So no pressure.
Virgil van Dijk will come in for the exhausted Laurent Koscielny and Sanchez will return up front. We’re one Theo Walcott away from full strength.
That was delightfully simple. Jose Gaya makes the first, crossing low for the oncoming Ramsey. Sanchez scores the second, blatting home a free-kick from outside the box before the break. I switch to Klopp Protocol as Swansea try to limit the damage, aware that goal difference could prove critical. Ramsey bags another in the second half, but that’s as good as it gets. Job done.
And Manchester United…win again. They haven’t lost since December. If we’re going to win the league, we have to beat them next week at the Emirates Stadium. But before that, we’ve got a Champions League semi-final to finish against Manchester City. This is going to be quite the cliff-hanger.
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.