THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and win silverware with Everton.
THE CATCH: Nine seasons of CM01/02 exposed your mental frailties to a surprisingly wide audience. And this game is much, much more difficult. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?
When you feel that you’re in a crisis, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. Take a really deep breath. Then take three more. It over-oxygenates your blood and gives you a sort of low level natural high.
Once you’ve done that, you might realise that you’re not really in a crisis at all. Just a bit of a pickle. Obviously, if you’re in a lift, the cable’s snapped and it’s plunging down 23 storeys of darkness, then no amount of deep breathing is going to help, but in most cases this is good advice. It certainly is for me at Everton because, when you think about it, a loss to Manchester City, a win over Bournemouth and a loss to Arsenal is…well…it’s exactly what you’d expect. We’ll know a lot more about this Everton side when we get through September; three league games against Stoke, Middlesborough and Southampton, plus a cup tie against Birmingham.
But first it’s the real-world international break. As an English journalist of little repute, this means the sudden truncation of the up-and-down-the-country travel and the opportunity to spend more time with my cat. As Everton manager, it means scouting, tinkering, training. Using the free time to push forward in the search for a working identity.
There’s some positive news with the sight of Leighton Baines, Maarten Stekelenburg and Tyias Browning in the U23 side. There’s some less positive news in the sight of new England manager Gareth Southgate drawing with Albania and then losing at home to Scotland. But I get to scamper around and build a top three of transfer targets: Alphonse Areola; Michael Keane and Saido Berahino. As you can see, they’re all doing really well at their current clubs. And then, finally, it’s time for a trip to Stoke.
It’s a very interesting proposition. Mark Hughes is really committing to the Stokalona Project. I watched their 2-2 draw with Leicester and I learned a lot. Lee Grant always rolls the ball out to the centre-backs and they like to ping it about the edge of the final third before they make their move. We need to close them down everywhere and disrupt them.
It’s also clear that they prefer to go through the centre, rather than down the flanks. We’ll need three midfielders again. Geoff Cameron never looked comfortable against Riyad Mahrez, so we’ll look to exploit that. But I am a little concerned by their attacking corners. Quite unlike any other team I’ve met so far, they leave the near post vacant and have Jon Walters, Ryan Shawcross and Peter Crouch all clustered at the back stick like war elephants. Or at least, two war elephants and a giraffe. We’ll need to prepare for that. And, given that they still have so many tall players, we’ll do short corners.
Baines is back in the team and I want him to thunder down the left at Cameron. I’ve got Barry dropping deep on that side to cover him, I’ve got Gerard the Snake cutting inside ahead of him so that he’s got room to rampage. Let’s hope it’s enough. Joel Robles will continue in goal because he’s done quite well and I don’t want to drop him just because Stekelenburg is back. And there’ll be another game for Jonjo Kenny on account of Browning and Seamus Coleman still lacking full fitness.
For the first 18 minutes, everything is fine. Baines makes a number of good runs. Gerard the Snake has three openings on the edge of the box, ignoring the pass and smashing the ball into the upper tier every time. And then Phil Jagielka goes a-wandering, Wilfried Bony exploits a little bit of room outside the area, slams a shot in on goal and Robles punches it in off the post and into the back of the net. And then the game really goes very badly wrong.
We continue to make breaks, most notably after corners where the plan to drop Lukaku back and use Bolasie and The Snake as a sort of rocket-propelled counter-attack works wonderfully. Well, right up until the point where one of them runs full tilt into a defender and knocks themselves out like a fucking labrador sprinting into a closed patio door.
Our passing is really off and we’re just waiting the ball. When we do get a sight of goal, we spaff it over the bar. It’s all very frustrating and it gets even more frustrating when Robles palms away a Glenn Whelan free-kick and Jagielka smashes it into Ramiro Funes Mori’s midriff, sending it ricocheting into the back of the net. Stoke have had one shot on target and they’ve won 2-0. Still…at least they didn’t score from a corner.
Now, the sharper-eyed among you will note sagely that for all our shots, we didn’t make any clear cut or half chances. This anomaly comes in spite of having several attacking players on the pitch in the hope that, you know, we might score a bit. We have a home game against a solid-looking Middlesbrough next and I really want to get to the bottom of this. We’re not going to counter attack, we’re going to control. To try to make the most of our abilities, I create a forward line of Lukaku and Ross Barkley, ably supported by Yannick Bolasie, Kevin Mirallas and Idrissa Gueye with the instruction to win the ball higher up the pitch.
We have a shape that should protect us from a counter attack and we have two proper full backs to provide support from the flanks. This is the most important bit because Boro play away from home with two deep midfielders protecting their defence. We need to get around the outside of that red wall. But finally, and with a heavy heart, I’m dropping Jagielka. I love him dearly, but he’s so slow and cumbersome, it’s like trying to stop pirates in the Malacca Straits by deploying three fat lads in a rubber ring.
In one sense, this worked really, really well. We made most of the running. We had more than twice as many shots. We were, for the most part, able to keep Boro at arm’s length. That said, I will admit that on the few occasions they came near us, they caused absolute panic. Two half chances, a clear cut chance and one off the woodwork is not quite what I was looking for. But the real problem is, once again, our failure to turn chances into good chances. Too often, in two-thirds of cases, in fact, the shot was fired off too early and without threat.
We can’t keep doing that. We’re clearly a very good football team. There’s clearly ability there, but we’re just playing without any intelligence and I can’t help but feel responsible in some way.
That’s three games without a goal now. We really need to sort this out against Birmingham in the League Cup. It’s just rather unfortunate that we’re going to have to find a solution without Lukaku, who was injured in the last game. Given that his replacement at the weekend, Enner Valencia, was as useful as a bunch of flowers in a sword fight, I’m willing to offer up a chance to a man who must have thought he was finished at this football club. Not so. I am willing to give everyone an opportunity to prove themselves. And that includes Oumar Niasse.
He will lead the line in a rather more attacking formation. We’re still looking to control the game, roaming around to find space, but we’re giving the players more freedom to express themselves. Niasse will drop off and hope to encourage another one of those bastard four-square defences to break up in pursuit of him. Mirallas and Bolasie can then cut in and find the gaps. Barkley can essentially do whatever he wants as a roaming playmaker while Tom Cleverley can bomb up and down where required. The full-backs are encouraged to get forward while Gueye drops back to cover. I mean, on the face of it, this looks pretty bloody shrewd. Except for the Niasse bit. That *is* a gamble, I accept that.
And this is why I don’t gamble. Because I end up outside in the rain with empty pockets, crying my eyes out at how unfair it all is and how if I’d realised I had a flush, I obviously would have gone all in, but those hearts and diamonds all look pretty similar when you’ve had a drink.
The plan works almost perfectly. We push up, take the game to them and we make so many chances. All the chances, in fact. Or at least all the ones on target. Birmingham do their best to get the ball and slow it all down with ceaseless passing, but they can’t stop us for long. In the first 75 minutes, we make four half chances, one clear cut chance and we rattle Tomasz Kuszczak’s woodwork twice. But to no avail. As the game stretches on, I become increasingly concerned and take the rather bold step of shifting from control to attack. It is at this point that Birmingham awaken, counter attack and score through Greg Stewart. I am vexed. I shift to overload. It is at this point that Birmingham start to enjoy themselves, counter attack again and score through Greg Stewart, after Ashley Williams blunders on the edge of his own area. We are out of the cup. At home to a lower league side.
We haven’t scored in four games. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, I might have been better just leaving it on control and hoping that the law of averages stayed strong. I want to tell myself to put this one down to experience, but the fans behind the dug-out are swearing so loudly that I can’t really hear myself think.
It now becomes clear that my next fixture, at home to Southampton, is really quite important. It’s not even a case of, “lose this and you’re tits deep in the brown stuff.” I’ve got to win this. And I think I’ve got to win this well.
The problem is that Southampton don’t seem to have any weak spots. They don’t leave any discernible gaps at corners, so no joy there. They’ve got the perfect blend of silk and steel in the middle, so I can’t get them there. I have to be wary about sending my full-backs forward because they’ve got Shane Long and Dusan Tadic there. Oh, and there’s the small matter of Charlie Austin winning everything in the air.
And my solution to all this? A stiff drink. Then a bit of pacing up and down. Then another stiff drink. Then I take my daughter to school, come home and get on with it. Valencia will come in for Niasse because obviously. Gerard the Snake comes in for Bolasie because although neither of them have pleased me thus far, he’s got the freshest legs. I’m also going to try and ignore Ashley Williams’s 5.9 against Birmingham because that raises questions for which I simply cannot supply convincing answers.
Light the beacons! Light the beacons! They’ve only gone and bloody cracked it! Early in the first half, Gerard the Snake breaks down the right, looks up and skids a low pass into Valencia who hits it first time straight past Fraser Forster. Two minutes later, at what feels like the 36th time of asking, Leighton Baines smashes a free kick home to double the advantage. We are absolutely cruising. At least until half time.
At half time, Erwin Koeman suggests that I don’t say anything at all so as to ensure that, “they go out with clear heads.” This seems like a really bad idea, but I figure that Erwin might have a better understanding of the characters and personalities in the dressing room given that he, like them, is an abstract concept in my head formed by a selection of computer generated variables entirely beyond my comprehension.
And so I don’t say anything. And morale plummets. And within 30 seconds of the restart, Charlie Austin scores. And suddenly, we’re looking awfully nervous.
But it’s okay. I drop the wingers back, urge them to retain possession and, not only do they see out the game, they do so in comfort and style. And they all look delighted afterwards. Especially when I’m flushing Erwin’s head down the toilet.
But that’s not it. We’ve had a game moved to Friday for live television. We’re getting the Jeff Stelling and Rachel Riley treatment. We have to go to Burnley before we can put the lid down on this month and move on. And you know what? I’m glad about that. There is a strange paradox within this game; no-one wants to turn it off after a defeat or a draw and it feels like bad luck to turn it off after a victory. Whatever magic it is that propels you to success is not easily invoked. And so we travel the short distance to Turf Moor for one final swing at a Burnley team that hasn’t won in six games.
I do think there’s a lot to be said for not-messing-around-when-you’re-winning-or-at-least-when-you’ve-just-won-for-the-first-time-in-ages. Mirallas’ performances have been mediocre for a bit though, so I’ll bring back Bolasie for him. Aside from that though, and especially with Burnley’s two-man central midfield, I say we just get stuck in. After all, they’re supposed to get better the more they play in the same shape. Let’s end the month on a real high, having turned the corner and left all this misery behind us.
I don’t know what to do. I stare at the screen for a long time, my face contorted with fury. I can’t shout because my daughter is asleep. So is my wife. They’ve been asleep for a long time. I suspect the neighbours are asleep too because it’s quite late. So I can’t stomp about or anything. But I want to stomp about. I want to stride outside and tip a car over. I want to set it alight and stand in front of the flames, yelling at the Gods. I want it to be my neighbour’s car, the one who seems to be testing how close he can park it to mine, so close that it’s impossible to slide a five pound note between the number plates. That’s just intimidating behaviour. I might just piss on his driver’s door handle actually. And then wait by the window all night watching, waiting, trembling with anticipation for the moment he unknowingly touches my wee.
We didn’t win. I’m not entirely sure how. Not for the usual reasons either. Oh, sure, we made loads of chances, we hit the woodwork, yadda yadda yadda. We always do that. But we looked threatened by them, unsettled by the ferocity of their press. We couldn’t always get any rhythm going. Andre Gray was a constant threat on the break. He opened the scoring in the first half with Burnley’s first chance. I stayed calm, allowed the players to keep at it and was rewarded with a nice through ball from Barkley, converted by Lukaku. Now, at this point, with just over half an hour left to play, I should possibly have considered a cautious approach. I know, I know, it’s *only* Burnley. But they had troubled me and a point, I thought, wasn’t necessarily a bad result. Besides, we were mostly in control now. Perhaps it would be all three.
But what kind of manager do I want to be? The kind of manager who carefully collects points like rare coins? Or the kind of manager who drives a JCB through the window of the rare coin dealer and scoops up all of the rare coins? I think I know what sort of man I am. I switch to attacking mode and look to capitalise on their disappointment. Fifteen minutes later, I’m 1-3 down.
I hate the sort of man I am. I really do.
All of which leaves me here, having played one game more than most of the league. So I’m actually even lower than 13th in all probability. We’ve had seven games, five of them have been very winnable and we have seven points. Seven miserly, pissing points. That is not good enough.
I know that you could look upon all this kindly, remark that the players are still growing used to my tactics and that this is a game to be played over long periods of time. I know that you could argue that a catastrophic injury crisis in the early weeks prevented me from enjoying any kind of new manager bounce. But, dear friend, we would both know that it was bullshit. We should not have been beaten by Stoke and we should not have been beaten by Burnley. We should have taken more than a point against Middlesbrough too. We should have 11 or 12 points by now and we should be in the top six.
I had hoped that September would provide me with some stability. It seems that October will prove every bit as nerve-racking. They’ll sack you for anything in this game, you know.
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 five full leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).