FM21 – A Blaugrana Tale – Chapter 5: November 2020

This guest series is written by my good friend Harry, who has chosen to make himself miserable for your enjoyment. This is Chapter 5. For previous chapters, see Chapter 1Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. -Isaiah

November begins with interesting news out of America, as Al Gore wins his sixth term in office, celebrating on the night by personally disassembling an oil rig live on air before giving the kiss of life to a beached sperm whale. But over in the old country we’ve got more important things to deal with, starting with a trip to Anfield in the Champions’ League. And we still don’t have Messi… 

That said, in a way it makes my job simpler from a team selection point of view. Alba and Roberto come in to provide fresh energy at full back while Coutinho moves out wide and Pedri comes in the middle. Griezmann continues on the right and Fati will get a chance up front. The biggest change comes in goal, where Neto is finally fit. After some agonizing I decide to throw him straight in. We’re going with the Cruyff because it offers us more flexibility than the Basset but I’m going to dial back the attacking mentality. 

And the results are… not bad. I don’t want to go overboard because there’s no meaningful sense in which Liverpool weren’t the better team but there are definite good signs. 

Liverpool dominate the early exchanges and take the lead in the fourth minute when Salah’s crossfield ball finds Mane to score. We don’t have a chance until the 24th minute, when Griezmann heads straight at Alisson from 6 yards. I cried a little. But I needn’t have. Only a minute later a long ball from Lenglet finds Pjanic, who puts Fati through to score. We go into the break at 1-1 but don’t really deserve it. Lenglet and Pique are playing well and Neto has made a number of good saves. 

In the second half Liverpool are quieter but, conversely, we don’t really have any chances of note. In the 84th minute, I finally give up the ghost and bring on Ronald Araujo to kick people and close things down. In the 94th minute Roberto hacks the ball off the line when Matip has a header from a corner. 

1-1 at Anfield. I’ll take it.

For the next game, against Granada, I rotate out the fullbacks but other than that have an unchanged side. Messi is back and I agonize over whether to throw him straight in, but my wife advises me to bring him off the bench. They’re only Granada. I look across our kitchen and see Carles Puyol sitting in the corner. He’s shaking his head surlily. “What are you doing?” he says, “of course you start Messi.” I’m about to comply when I remember that only I can see him and so I probably shouldn’t make a habit of doing whatever he tells me to… 

Turns out, they were both right. 

As usual, we are in control possession-wise but lack penetration. Dest scores our opener after nine minutes, getting the ball on the edge of the area, beating a player and slamming the ball into the goal across the keeper. Five minutes later he tries that again and fires about 100 yards over. Oh well, can’t win them all. 

We huff and puff for the rest of the half and the first fifteen minutes of the second before I decide to pull the trigger and bring on Messi with half an hour left. And what you you know: fifteen minutes later, he lays the ball off for Dembele to tap in; four minutes after that he meets a Gaya cross on the volley for 3-0; and in the 94th minute he is at the centre of a beautiful Gaya-Roberto-Alena-Messi-Braithwaite one-touch move for 4-0. 

Turns out Messi is pretty good and central to how we play. Who would’ve thought. 

For the next game against Real Sociedad, De Jong isn’t fit enough to start so I rejig the team a bit. Pjanic drops back to sit in front of the defense with Coutinho and Pedri ahead of him. I then deploy Dembele and Trincao on the wings with Messi playing as a false 9 through the middle. I also give Pique a rest because Real Sociedad haven’t been very good this year and I want Upamecano to get more game time.

Another frustrating afternoon. Turns out Messi isn’t the answer to all my problems. He looks off the pace and slightly unfit, which I suppose is fair enough all things considered. The first half is dull but we’re narrowly in charge and this continues into the second half. I rejig the front line on 64 minutes, switching it to Coutinho-Griezmann-Messi but still we don’t have a major chance. It looks all over and I’m resigned to another evening in the comforting arms of Ghost-Puyol (that night in the drinks cabinet messed me up more than I thought) when Pedri works a high cross into the box which is met by an acrobatic volley from, you guessed it, Jack FUCKING Wilshere, which sails into the top corner. Beautiful. 

To be honest it’s not the most encouraging preparation for our return game against Liverpool but the lateness of the winner gives me more of a lift. And fortunately little Jackie’s Spanish isn’t quite good enough to understand all the other players when they pat him on the back and say, “Xavi will be so proud of you – I’m sure he’ll give you an extension when he arrives.” 

De Jong comes back in midfield and I rotate my fullbacks, moving Roberto to become the third midfielder. In theory, De Jong and Pjanic will provide the silk and Sergi the mindless running. I also go with the front three that finished the last game. I have to admit I’m not sure this trio won’t all trip each other up but they get by on seniority and Fati picked up a knock and isn’t fit to start. 

Liverpool control the opening minutes, with Neto making a flying save to stop a Henderson piledriver early on. A lot of their attacks are coming down my right so I tell Dest to pull back and we grow into the game. Alena draws a save, Griezmann shoots over the bar and Messi, of all people, misses a one-on-one. We go into halftime 0-0, which I think our play merits on balance. 

We come out of the blocks in the second half, with good work by Coutinho and Alba down the left beating Trent Alexander-Arnold and cutting back for Messi to finish tidily after Matip fluffs his clearance. It’s his 450th goal for Barcelona. Two minutes later a lovely curling cross from the left by Coutinho is met by Griezmann with a tidy finish, breaking a scoring drought dating back a month. With half an hour left, I shut things down: Araujo comes on to shield the back four and Roberto moves to right back. I’m not here for your entertainment. 

And, the best bit is, we actually play well. We’re defensive and aren’t really making loads of chances, sure, but we’re solid and aren’t clinging on. In the 93rd minute Liverpool get a corner that falls to Dembele in our box, who proceeds to dribble all the way down the other end and slide the ball into the net for 3-0. 

I’m so proud of the lads. We played intense, sophisticated football that matched a (probably) better team pound for pound. I tell them this in the dressing room and a couple of them even take a break from trying to Zoom Xavi to thank me.

It’s not been a bad month. We’re back to second in La Liga and now look like we’re in a good place to finish first in our Champions’ League group. I even pick up another award to add to my collection. I celebrate by seeping into the warm, musky arms of Ghost Puyol, where I can sniff his hair shampoo.

Next: December 2020 

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.