The Football Manager Project is back. A new manager, a new team and a new challenge. Editor of The Set Pieces, Chris Evans, has entered a fantasy draft competition with six real-life coaches and managers.
But can Tromsgodset Pieces upset the odds and bring the inaugural TSP Conference home?
There’s nothing quite like the opening day of a football season to give you a distorted view on things. As the first kick of the campaign nears, everything feels fresh and exciting.
Those questionable draft picks morph into inspired signings, my relative lack of tactical knowledge becomes a strength and as I see my reflection in the laptop screen as the first match loads, I could swear I’m looking younger and better-looking. Perhaps I’m just a narcissist.
The first game of Tromsgodset Pieces’ TSP Conference campaign is against Flaymond FC, who are managed by Ukrainian coach Konstantyn Garbar. A guy whose last real-world coaching assignment was at Benfica.
On paper, it appeared as if Garbar’s draft had been more fruitful than mine. His team looked stronger in every department. From Raphaël Varane and Kyle Walker at the back, through to a midfield three of N’Golo Kanté, Frenkie de Jong and Koke and Luis Suárez up front, they looked a force to be reckoned with.
They’d set up in a similar 4-3-3 to mine, with the only variation that Kanté dropped deeper in the midfield than my own ball winner, Francis Coquelin. And while Garbar’s side appeared to be technically better than mine, I hoped the energy in my 11 would stifle them.
Harry Kane, Mo Salah and Marco Asensio look a fearsome front three, while Jordan Henderson, Martin Odegaard and Coquelin have a great mixture of tenacity and creativity. At the back, I’ve opted for Gabriel at centre back, leaving Chris Smalling on the bench – possibly more to do with my continued bemusement at making him my third draft pick than any rational reason.
I’m optimistic about my chances. And that feeling lasts for a good 10 minutes into the first half. It has to be one of the shortest honeymoon periods in history.
A straightforward corner from Thomas Lemar picks out Varane, who evades my statuesque back line to head home. Concerning? Yes. Need for panic? Not yet. That was to come.
We appear to be gaining a foothold in the match as the half wears on and are starting to keep the ball much better. That’s until a wayward pass forward by Stefan de Vrij is intercepted by Varane and a simple ball forward completely takes out my entire back four to allow Suárez the freedom of the TSP Arena to slot home a second.
We’re now giving the ball away in dangerous positions and are seemingly putting up little resistance to any attacks. We gift another chance to Suárez on the half hour and while David Soria manages to keep that one out, the resulting corner finds John Stones, who makes it three. We’re sinking without trace.
My response is to drop Coquelin back into the Kanté role to provide a stronger base. The change appears to stop the onslaught temporarily and we even muster a couple of forays forward.
Any slight optimism I may be feeling is soon extinguished when my assistant points out that Soria has won the ball back for my team more than any other player. Yes, that’s right, my goalkeeper. Jesus wept.
After making a couple of tactical tweaks, the second half starts more brightly. Soria makes another save after Flaymond slice through a worryingly flimsy left side once more, but we’re making chances too. Salah wastes our best opportunity after being put through by a brilliant crossfield pass from Marco Asensio and we’re looking more dangerous.
While a comeback is probably a little too much to ask for, the match is now more evenly contested.
My balloon soon punctures though. As we enter the final 15 minutes, a pass by substitute Francisco Valverde is cut out, allowing Lemar the room to breeze past Azpilicueta and de Vrij to tee up Roger Martí to head in the fourth. Then, with five minutes remaining, another Lemar corner picks out Varane to head in a carbon copy of the first goal to make it five, before a deep free kick by Koke in stoppage time lands on the head of Lemar for a sixth goal. That’s five headed goals conceded and lucky old Gabriel has had a close-up view of them all. As I look along my subs bench as the final whistle goes, I’m sure I spot a glint in Smalling’s eye.
In the dressing room, I refuse to hold back and promptly tear a strip off my players. I know modern methods suggest the hairdryer treatment isn’t as effective as it once was, but if I can’t have a blow out after losing 6-0 on the opening day, when can I?
Despite the result, I feel there’s something to cling on to. If I discount the first 30 minutes – and the final 10 – we competed and could have scored ourselves. The trouble is, I have a nagging feeling that I’m just trying to roll a pretty significant turd in what’s an inadequately size pot of glitter.
As the match screen ends, I catch my reflection again. This time, my frown lines are more evident and my face has aged as much as my tactics. This could be a long season.
Played a blinder – Konstantyn Garbar, Flaymond FC (won 6-0 v Tromsgodset Pieces)
“Before the draft, I decided what kind of formation I’d use and what sort of players I’d like to have and stuck to that for the opening game. First of all, I have a solid midfield line and two tall, fast defenders. In the middle, my main men are Kanté and Koke, who I think are the two best players in their positions. Finally, it’s crucial to have a top striker who doesn’t need a lot of chances to convert them into goals. It all went to plan in the first game.
“We played aggressively from the very beginning, used the high press and remained compact between the lines. To be honest, I’ve changed the default way to play set pieces and it played out well for me as a number of my goals came from corners and free kicks.
“I don’t think the score truly reflected the game. We had chances and converted them perfectly into the final score. However, we had some problems when the opponent played wide and used the space between central defender and full back in our semi flanks.”
Tactical masterclass – Ben Cole, BCFC (drew 1-1 v AJCFC)
“My crown jewel was always going to be Lionel Messi. He was my main target when I started the draft and I was delighted when I managed to sign him. The rest of my squad was built around him. So when Messi was sent off 27minutes into my opening game, it was definitely a double whammy – going down to 10 men and losing my best player.
“After the red card, I immediately changed the mentality of the team to be more defensive with counter-attacks down the left where the play would go through Neymar, who was now going to be our main source of goals. We got the goal, then went even more defensive to hold out for the remainder of the game. They scored a late goal, which was frustrating, but I would have taken a draw as soon as Messi got sent off.
“Of course, Messi being sent off also meant he’ll be suspended for the next match, so deploying a similar tactic to attack more down the left side to get Neymar on the ball more will probably be the way to go.”
Athletico Ashton 2 (Matuidi 87, Dybala 90+2) KillieFC 1 (Ibrahimovic 84)
BC 1 (Neymar 40) AJCFC 1 (Depay 85)
Flaymond FC 6 (Varane 11 & 85, Suarez 26, Stones 28, Marti 79, Lemar 90) Tromsgodset Pieces 0
Want to see more? You can watch all the key action from each game week in our FM20 Project, The Coaches highlights post.