FC Twente – How to keep a squad together at all costs

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Twente

 

Let’s face it, we completely overachieved last season. Winning the Eredivisie even when put in to the context of our miserable European display was a fantastic way to end the season. The challenge going in to my second season in charge would be to build on that successful first season and show that we can go on to become perennial domestic challengers as well as making progress in our ability to handle European football.

How though should we be going about that? The financial reality of the Eredivisie is that there is little money out with the likes of Ajax and PSV and we will need a prolonged period of years in European competition to get to the stage that we can spend serious money. Let’s not forget as well that I’m trying to loosely follow the Moneyball mantra and therefore I am going in to my first effective pre season planning to spend markedly more on wages than I am on transfer fees this should allow us to attract quality to the club in the short term.

I’m fully expecting the second season to be more of a challenge than the first. Ajax and PSV especially will both strengthen and to an extent we will be re ranked meaning that the AI will adapt their approach to playing us. I did not however expect the shit to start hitting the fan within a couple of days of the end of the season.

There I was sitting in my imaginary managerial office with my feet on my imaginary desk basking in the glow of my success when my Chilean midfield maestro Felipe Gutierrez wandered in to my office spouting some nonsense about my not keeping a promise that I had made him. During the first season Gutierrez had come to me concerned that he wanted to be playing Champions League football for the good of his career. At this point the Chilean was my stand out player and he was one that I really REALLY didn’t want to lose, I managed to work my silver tongue and convinced Felipe to stick around telling him that I would give him the Champions League football he craved and crucially that we had some excellent young players that I was looking to develop to get us there. This appeased Felipe and he agreed to give me a season to get us there. Now, I fully expected that having not only qualified for the Champions League but having qualified directly for the group stages he would be a happy bunny, but no. Felipe was mad that I hadn’t developed the young players sufficiently…..WHAT? Oudh-Chikh and Tapia alone had come on leaps and bounds and a number of other young player had played significant minutes and contributed to the success of the season. What a dick.

This all stems from an apparent interest in the Chilean from Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich. Let’s be realistic here, if a bid from Bayern was to materialise then could I really justify standing in his way and keeping him at Twente? No I couldn’t. There are two problems here though 1.) THERE WAS NO BID and 2.) He had a chance to show what he could do over two games against Bayern in the Champions League groups stage and he was the worst player on the pitch each time!

Eventually though I was able to appease Gutierrez again along with Hakim Ziyech who was casting envious glances at the likes of Roma, Juventus and……Everton?? This did however reinforce in my mind that I needed a contingency plan for each position and I needed it now. More on that later.

As my second season drew close there were only two significant departures from the first team squad that had done so well the season before. I grew tired of Kasper Kusk throwing his toys out of the pram for one reason or another and he was allowed to leave for Ajax for £3.5M plus assorted add ons. I also sold off the second shadow striker from the first team with Mexican Jesus Corona leaving for Sporting Lisbon for £5M plus add ons again. I took my time in deciding to sell Corona as I really liked his direct style and his ability to beat players but his final product was just too inconsistent so off he went.

This left me in a bit of a bind in terms of squad management as for three attacking players I essentially had Hakim Ziyech, Bilal Oudh-Chikh and at a push the Bosnian Semir Gvodjar to fill the positions. At this point though the Football Manager gods decided to throw me a bone at long last and an email appeared in my inbox from an agent informing me that his client Ibrahim Afellay was available on a free transfer. Even when Afellays notable injury history this was still a no brainer and since there was no transfer fee involved I was happy to pay £16K per week to secure his signature. We were still however light in an attacking sense but this also preceded a tactical change.

In my initial update I showed by slightly unorthodox tactical system with a wide three man defence at the base and a narrow three man attack in the attacking midfield strata. It didn’t feel quite right though and after reading this article by Adin Osmanbasic on positional play and the importance of depth and staggered attacks I changed the system to look like this;

tactic

Sometimes small tweaks can make all the difference and in an attacking sense the player in possession of the ball now has more options at different angles and the AI is finding it increasingly difficult to defend against us whether in transition or in more prolonged attacking periods. Using a False 9 in the striker position means that he is still dropping in to similar areas that the shadow striker occupied, he just has more of an attacking threat when on the ball. The change on the other side of the three AM’s was to switch roles from shadow striker to attacking midfielder with a support duty. Now the attack is fully staggered and marking our players is an extremely difficult task.

Using a false nine in my attack though meant a shift of emphasis and although the aforementioned Semir Gvodjar was comfortable in that role I still don’t think he’s quite ready. Cue a loan swoop for the Cameroon striker Jean-Marie Dongou from Barcelona B. Initially I hadn’t planned on using the loan market at all but my own youth team isn’t ready to provide players for the first team so I decided to make use of others youth setups in the short term. I remember hearing an interview with Roberto Martinez once when he was asked about Evertons reliance on the loan system, his point was that if it is a choice between having these players as one year rentals or not having them at all then it’s best to have them for that one year.

I made three other notable moves before the season started with last years player of the season being available on a free transfer as his contract expired I jumped at the chance to sign him up as with Afellay I was happy to pay him slightly higher wages (£13.5k per week) than I would have otherwise because there was no transfer fee. My other main transfer did however come with a fee, and a sizeable one at that with Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelj joining from rivals AZ Alkmaar. AZ had initially refused to sell to me but with Gudelj seemingly willing to wait out his contract they eventually sold for a bargain £3.1M. The beauty of the Gudelj signing is that he fits my philosophy of signing universal players and he can fill four different roles within our tactical system although I plan to play him most often in the central midfield role. The third new signing to come in was another loan signing from Barcelona B as Alex Grimaldo came in to add depth at the left back position.

With all those comings and goings I would certainly say that we had strengthened and despite losing the Dutch Super Cup 2-1 to a PSV side led by Memphis Depay we went on an 11 game streak without losing in the league until we came unstuck at home to Groningen losing 1-0. A second defeat in the first half of the season 3-1 away to Vitesse meant that we went in to the winter break trailing Vitesse by 2 points. More pleasingly we managed to defeat Ajax and Feyenoord over the first few months and drew 1-1 away to PSV. We need to stop throwing points away against the ‘smaller sides’ though.

You may remember that we all but disgraced ourselves in the European competition in my first season in charge failing to even progress from a weak Europa League group. This time however things would be very different. We were drawn in a difficult group for my first crack at the Champions League with Bayern Munich, Tottenham and Anderlecht but in the first three games we managed to beat both Anderlecht and Spurs although we completely capitulated in Munich and we were on the end of a 5-0 hiding. Over the course of the second lot of fixtures we drew away to Spurs and once again beat Anderlecht to see us going in to the final group game at the top of the group with the advantage. Unfortunately the team that we faced in the last match were Bayern who were sitting in third spot. In typical Football Manager style we failed gloriously after conceding from an 88th minute penalty we lost 1-0 and the final table saw Spurs and Bayern progress with 10 points each, we finish third…..with 10 points. Bastards, ah well though there is always the Europa League.

At the halfway point I usually evaluate my squad for strenghts and weaknesses although I am always loathe to but in January are there is very rarely any real value in the market. This time though my hand was forced slightly by the ungrateful Samuel Inkoom with my starting right back hearing that Fenerbache were interested he decided to try to force a move. I eventually accepted a bid of £3M plus clauses which for a player that was signed for free and whom seemed to be regressing was a windfall. I also needed cover in the central midfield areas (AP, AM and CM) just to combat tiredness and injury. Both solutions were presented by the side that I put out of European competition with Anderlecht choosing to make Dennis Praet and Chancel Mbemba available for loan and both were brought in until the end of the season.

Over the second half of the season we managed to lose somewhat inexplicably to SC Cambuur (3-1) GA Eagles (3-1) Vitesse (2-1) and Feyenoord (2-0) but somehow we still managed to end the season on top of the table by three points from Vitesse. It was a bizzare stretch of games where no one team seemed to be able to put together any consistent form. I maintain that our form was so poor as a direct result of playing Thursday night football as we progressed in the Europa League. Once again however we managed to beat both Ajax and PSV so there is a positive spin on things. In terms of performance we were only 5th in terms of goals scored but once again we conceded the fewest amount of goals, again showing that the wide three defensive system is much more solid than it appears.

league

Our run in the Europa League was equally eventful as we finally proved that we can cut it in European football. The first round saw us drawn against Galatasaray and it took a late goal from Dongou to salvage a 2-1 defeat in Istanbul. In the return leg a second half penalty – Dongou again put us through on away goals. Next up were Newcastle United and I was expecting a stiffer test, I was wrong. A 3-0 win in the home leg and a 2-1 win in the away leg put us through comfortably. This time three of the goals were scored by our promising Bosnian striker Semir Gvodjar. The ties however seemed to be getting progressively harder and in the quarter final we drew Shakhtar Donetsk. In the first leg away from home we went 2-0 down in the first 20 minutes and it looked as though we were going to be hammered. In the second half though two goals from Nemanja Gudelj (his first for the club) and one from Ibrahim Afellay gave us a 3-2 win. In the second leg a last minute goal from our talisman Hakim Ziyech just eased the nerves a little bit. Onwards and upwards then and all that stood between us and a European final was Valencia. In the home leg Dongou scored an early penalty but we couldn’t hold on and eventually they were able to break through and score an equaliser, more importantly it was an away goal. In the second leg from out of nowhere we scored twice through Tyler Blackett and Renato Tapia and even though they scored late on it still wasn’t enough. We were in the final!! and the opponents? Marseille.

Just to put the semi final victory in context this Valencia side won La Liga this season!!

We were clear underdogs in the final although you could argue that in Shakhtar and Valencia we had already beaten two superior sides. Frustratingly my side appeared to forget how to score in the run to the end of the season and no matter how many shots at goal we took in this match the ball would just not go in. Marseille had the ball in the net in the second half but it was disallowed for offside. Eventually the tie went to penalty kicks and then from there on to sudden death. The ignominy of being the player that lost us the match came to right back Chancel Mbemba with the last kick of his loan spell. We lost. It’s hard to be disappointed though since I never thought we had a hope of getting as far as we did.

In terms of players of the season it was difficult to narrow it down to just three. Renato Tapia switched to the halfback role when Gudelj came in and made it his own. Nemanja Gudelj himself was imperious in the midfield and Ibrahim Afellay was in sparkling form for much of the season. I did eventually settle on three though.

3.) Jean-Marie Dongou – In 45 appearances Dongou scored 33 goals and was largely responsible for our run to the final of the Europe League. I thought at one point during the season that I may have had a chance of a permanent transfer as he rejected a new contract from Barcelona. Ultimately I was the victim of his success and he signed an extension. He is still very much on my shortlist for the future though.

2.) Tyler Blackett – For a free transfer to have the kind of season that he had was simply phenomenal. He played 51 games with an average rating of 7.79 and made over 500 interceptions over the course of the season. He also only made 5 mistakes that led to goals over those 51 games and for a role that is isolated in my tactical system that is a great return. English sides have noticed now though and he is being followed by over 10 sides. Can I keep him next season?

1.) Hakim Ziyech – 20 goals and 20 assists over the course of 40 games. Ziyech is the conductor of my orchestra and is imperious in the advanced playmaker role. I’ve lost count of the amount of clubs that have placed a bid for him but as of yet he has been happy to stay here and play his football. Long may it continue.

So what does the future hold? In the short term I will be looking to retain as much of our squad as possible and the immediate aim will be to retain the league title again and progress beyond the group stage of the Champions League. I certainly don’t see myself leaving any time soon. So far I’ve rejected interviews with Malaga, Schalke, Inter, Roma, Milan, Fiorentina and Liverpool. I took an interview with Real Madrid but then when they offered me the job I couldn’t do it.

I spend a significant amount of time creating role specific shortlists for first team players and youth players using ideas gleaned from this excellent article by Chris Darwen (@comeontheoviedo) and I strongly suggest that you give it a read and follow Chris on twitter.

Financially we are in an extremely healthy position for such a relatively small club with £48M in the bank. I have already had the board upgrade our training and youth facilities and will be looking to do so again at some point in the coming season.

In terms of the squad I have one player joining on freedom of contract with versatile German full back Anthony Jung coming from RB Leipzig. I will also be looking to strengthen the defence and midfield throughout the off season and of course we will need to have plans in place to replace any of our stars that do end up leaving. This time though I will be willing to spend….

 

Bayern Munich’s Tactical Gamble

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This is not an article that I was planning to write. I saw something in the Champions League semi final that alters the narrative of negative publicity towards Guardiola for me and I wanted to look at it in a bit more detail. This piece will therefore be noticeably shorter than those that I usually write…

As with many others I watched the second leg of the Champions League semi final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona and like the rest of you I was slightly surprised by the defensive weakness displayed on the night by the German champions, that is until I started to look more closely at what the Germans were actually trying to do in order to overturn their three goal deficit from the first leg. Pep Guardiola is famous for his attention to detail in terms of pre match planning. He will watch the same opponents over and over again until he is struck by a moment of genius that allows him to instruct his side tactically. This time around however there was no need for Guardiola to watch Barcelona over and over as their structural and tactical weakness is the same as it was when he was in charge, the half space between the centrebacks and the fullbacks can become too stretched and despite the qualities of Sergio Busquets as a single pivot he is unable to cover the full area of the pitch.

It was at this point that I realised that Guardiola was playing chess with Barcelona and Luis Enrique. In chess a good attacking player will quickly identify their opponents structural weak point and look to exert as much pressure as possible on to that point. This is done for two reasons 1.) The weak point is the most likely place that you will be able to break through the opponents defensive structure and 2.) Pressuring the weak point will eventually lead to your opponent reacting and changing their strategy to protect this point and this will give you momentum in the match. Guardiola was in a position where he had a depleted squad, a three goal gap to salvage and the most in form front three in world football to defend against. He was trying to either break through and score one or two goals as quickly as possible or he was trying to force Luis Enrique in to a defensive strategy that would withdraw the threat of one of the attacking players.

The weak point that Bayern were looking to attack at every opportunity was the half space between Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba as Alba is prone to attacking bursts and is relatively defensively weak. To do so Bayern overloaded the right hand side of their tactical system. The right back Rafinha operated almost as a third centre back for much of the game not looking to overlap of move forwards as much as he usually would. Ahead of him Thomas Muller, Philip Lahm and Thiago would each be stationed more towards the right side of the attack meaning that when Bayern played the ball in to that area they were all able to connect with one another to offer an extremely solid attacking block of players. Robert Lewandowski on the other hand would start towards the left (or weak) side and them look to move centrally to take advantage of any gaps in the Barcelona defense as they looked to shift and cover their left flank.

Bay ovr

Here you can see that as the ball is played out to the right hand flank there are two Bayern players that are closely connected in an advanced position. When the player taking possession of the ball on the flank moves forwards they will create an overload pressuring the left side of the Barcelona defence. This image also shows the movement of Lewandowski who has moved to the centre from the wide area.

bay ovr again

Again in this example Bayern have four players overloading the strong side of the pitch. They are looking to exert enough pressure to cause the Barcelona defensive structure to break and let then in for an easy chance on goal.

The idea to attack in such an imbalanced way is perhaps understandable given that Bayern were missing their two most potent attacking wide players in Robben and Ribery and it also shows a kind of tactical daring from Guardiola as he so obviously sought to force Luis Enrique to alter his system to counter this.

Unfortunately this attacking system from Bayern also had it’s own weak points in the glaring lack of cover on the weak flank. Juan Bernat at left back was left with freedom to attack up the left wing looking to stop Barca from deploying all of its defensive resources to the left side of their defence. Defensively this would be solved by having Xabi Alonso drop in to a classic pivot position between the centre backs with the left centre back Benatia covering across. Unfortunately this was a position against the likes of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi that Benatia was less than comfortable in. He didn’t move far enough out and time and time again Barca were able to put pressure in Bayern in transition by playing the ball along that side of the field and looking to turn the Germans defensive line.

bayr poor positioning

Here you can see the huge gap on the left of the Bayern defence and the poor positioning of Bernat at left back as he is dragged infield by a positional run by Lionel Messi. The two Bayern centre backs were too close together throughout the match when they should have been more split to offer defensive cover across the field.

bay structure week

Again here we can see the start of the structural imbalance as Bernat is already looking to stretch and move in to a more advanced position on the left flank. The space left between Benatia and Bernat was one that was taking advantage of time and time again as Barca countered quickly and used the space to their advantage. There can be further questions as to why Manuel Neuer in the Bayern goal wasn’t given more licence to move forward to counter the threat of the pass in behind, whether this was a specific instruction or something less formal we have no way to know.

Theoretically the ideas shown by Guardiola in this match were sound and it made for an interesting tactical spectacle. Indeed there is no way now to know what the outcome would have been if Bayern had not conceded an equaliser so quickly after they had scored the first goal. If they had been able to score again or even move in to another period of sustained attacking play then it is possible that Luis Enrique would have been forced to move Neymar in to a deeper position and then the shape of the match would have changed completely. There is no doubt that there is a link between chess strategy and football strategy and in this match we were able to see this link played out in front of our eyes. The media narrative will still remain that Guardiola failed in this match but it showed us that he is still on the forefront of tactical thinking.

FC Twente – When Moneyball isn’t quite Moneyball

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Twente

 

It has been far too long since I’ve written anything at all – never mind a career update for the blog – but I feel as though it’s time to get back on the horse so to speak. In Football Manager terms I’ve been hugely inspired recently by the fantastic career articles being written by Alex Stewart for The Set Pieces and by Ed on his excellent blog The Coffeehouse: FM Discussion both of whom are using the hugely popular moneyball model to rebuild their teams on a budget. I wanted to do something similar whilst not copying the model all together, there are certain rules of moneyball that I will be using whilst effectively ignoring others to my own gain, more on that later though. Why though did I choose FC Twente in the Dutch Eredivisie?

On every new version of Football Manager I tend to have a save in Holland with Ajax and look to develop my own superstars and take them back to European glory. This time though Ajax didn’t quite suit what I wanted to do and so I turned my attention to my ‘second’ Dutch side, FC Twente. Part of the attraction to Twente is that they have a number of very promising young players through the spine of the side, players like Hakim Ziyech and Felipe Gutierrez suit my technical style of play perfectly and Kamohelo Mokotjo is a perfect insurance policy for my slightly insane tactical system. Since we are still in Holland we don’t have to worry about restrictions on foreign players and as such I can send my scouts roving around South America and Africa looking to bring the next big thing in to the academy at an early age but at the same time there will be enough quality Dutch youngsters to mean that I can add domestic talent throughout the squad. Having said that however I don’t plan to fill my squad with young newgens from abroad, my recruitment strategy is slightly more nuanced than that.

As Alex Stewart is showing with his Bristol City Moneyball save there is a huge benefit in targeting players between the ages of 21 and 25 that are undervalued by their clubs for one reason or another. As a result my recruitment strategy for first team replacements will be to filter my searches by these age values and target players that I believe I can sign for value. In part I’m doing this because it makes good sense but I also have to be realistic in terms of my financial capacity especially given the relative financial strength domestically of Ajax and PSV, our stadium holds just over 30,000 and we’ll need to sell out almost every week to hope to develop financially. I don’t plan to pay extortionate transfer fees but I will have a fairly flexible wage structure as again we can see from Alex’s save there is value in paying higher wages to attract the right player to the club. Recruitment for the youth team is slightly different and here we will target players from Africa and South America as well as players from Scandinavia and Belgium all of these areas will yield quality young players for exceptional value. My plan is to mix players from these locations with my own youth products and to offer them all quality coaching with the occasional foray to join with the first team. I will then use the best of these to add depth and quality to the first team in time whilst the rest will be sold on for a profit to fund my moves to strengthen the first team. I plan to expand slightly on these ideas as we go.

Tactically I have a set idea of how I want to play and it is slightly unorthodox but the theory behind it appears to be sound (in my head at least) I plan to write a follow up post to this one – two posts in short order!!! – breaking down exactly how my tactical system works and where its strengths and weaknesses lie but for the time being I’ll give you a short description;

Twente

 

Initially I had two players in the defensive midfield strata and two central midfielders but there seemed to be a real defensive imbalance so I switched the structure slightly to use two half backs to shield the space between the lone centre back and the full backs. The effect should be to have a high defensive line that functions in the same way as two centre backs and a sweeper would with the half backs playing the role of the centre backs and the lone centre back acting as a sweeper. It also goes well with our overall plan to play in a very compact shape high up the field to hopefully make us hard to break down. In the attacking phase we should see the roaming playmaker and central midfielder combine to offer a base behind the three central attacking players and this will hopefully lead to a lot of attacking interplay. You’ll be able to infer to a large degree whether or not this has worked from the season review below but for more specific examples and illustrations I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.

Before I write the review of my first season I’ll have to apologise. I meant to update after the first six months of the season and indeed that is how I plan to structure things going forward, I got slightly carried away however and January suddenly turned in to March and the youth intake and then that has become May and the end of the season, the review below will be slightly longer than I had initially intended it to be.

2014/15

My first season in charge and I was met with the board outlining my initial budgets. Normally I all but ignore these as I don’t tend to buy any players in the first season, I prefer to let players already at the club develop and identify potential weaknesses that way. I was also however met with a news item that I didn’t expect, apparently I have Manchester United as a parent club and they were looking to send young centre back Tyler Blackett and attacking midfielder Andreas Pereira over to Holland for some experience. I accepted both deals purely to provide some squad depth. I didn’t for a minute expect either player to become a regular but one of the two was to prove me wrong in spectacular fashion.

Other than the players I’d already mentioned we have some nice options. In defence Bjelland and Bengtsson offer experience and versatility whilst in midfield Mokotjo and Gutierrez are joined by the likes of Kyle Ebecilio and Eghan Shadrach giving us depth. Joining Ziyech in offering attacking options are a multi cultural lot in Dane Kasper Kusk, Mexican Jesus Corona and the extremely talented young Dutchman Bilal Oudh-Chikh. Strangely though as the first half of the season unfolded all of those players were massively overshadowed by unheralded Peruvian midfielder Renato Tapia whose well timed bursts from midfield were eerily reminiscent of Frank Lampard, Tapia is only 19 years old and could become almost scarily good. It’s always a nice surprise to find a player like that hidden away in your reserves.

Before the season even started our resolve was sorely tested as Ajax and Zenit St Petersburg submitted bids for Gutierrez and Tapia respectively. I was able to turn both down without angering either the boards or the players but the £6.75 Million offered by Ajax for Gutierrez was hugely tempting.

As the season ticked on towards the halfway point the team settled in to the tactical system and we began playing football exactly as I’d envisioned. Over the first half of the league campaign we only lost twice 2-0 away to Ajax in a match in which Davy Klaasen tore us apart and a 2-1 loss away to Feyenoord on the back of some awful refereeing decisions.

Unfortunately though our good form wasn’t continued in Europe despite having been drawn in a relatively easy Europa League group with Dnipro, Partizan and Molde we managed to lose four of the matches winning one and drawing the other. I would love to be able to say that we had rotated our squad for those matches but that simply wasn’t the case, we were just terrible. Going forward one of my biggest aims is to make us competitive in European competition but we are some way off that aim.

It’s at the halfway point that I start to make an initial detailed assessment of my squad and start to plan how to strengthen the team. I’ll be using another of Alex’s ‘rules’ in this regard although this time the rule comes from The Numbers Game and not Soccernomics. They argue that the key to strengthening your squad is identifying which of your players is weakest and replacing them as opposed to adding more players to your stronger positions. The first position of need that I identified is Goalkeeper where I’ve decided that current incumbent Nick Marsman is an excellent option provided that the opposition don’t hit the ball very hard and hit it straight at him. We currently have the promising Joel Drommel in our under 19 team so ideally I was searching for a goalkeeper at the top end of my age spectrum. I was browsing the players with expiring contracts and came across Uruguayan goalkeeper Martin Campana at Defensor Sporting, we quickly came to terms on a contract and he’ll take over as our new number one next season.

Next up I was disappointed with the performances of Cuco Martina at right back and when looking through the African Cup of Nations squads I noticed that Ghanian full back Samuel Inkoom hadn’t extended his contract with DC United and was a free agent. Once again it didn’t take long to agree on a contract and I’d at least have him in place for the second half of the season.

Finally I decided that I wanted to add depth in the central midfield area and again I found the answer in the expiring contracts screen with 25 year old German Danny Latza who had averaged 7.43 so far this season for Bochum and could play all over the field. He should offer a significant upgrade at half back as well as cover in central midfield and both full back positions.

As well as those players we also agreed terms with 7 players from across Africa who will come in to the youth team for next season. I’ll go in to details if any of them develop in to first team quality players.

I also had to let two players leave the club as offers were made that were too good to turn down. First up experienced full back Andreas Bjelland left for Marseille who had offered £4 Million. We had two other players in the squad that were more than capable of filling the left back role. Young Ghanian midfielder Eghan Shadrach also left after having his first team opportunities limited and Bordeaux bid £4.6 Million.

The second half of the season continued along the same lines as the first and again we only lost two matches this time we lost 2-1 away to Utrecht and 2-1 away to PSV. We seemed to pick up win after win and all while the other notable sides were busy either beating one another or drawing. In the end it wasn’t even close and with three games left to play we secured the Eredivisie title.

final table

Winning the title at any time would be pleasing but to do it by 12 points is insane. The challenge however will be to keep the nucleus of our squad together going in to next season and to add enough quality to be able to at least not completely embarrass ourselves in Europe this time. If I had to rank my players of the season it would go like this;

3.) Renato Tapia – He went from strength to strength and ended the season with 15 goals and 12 assists from a position that I had intended to be purely supportive. He also made his senior debut for Peru. So far I’ve refused three bids for his services from Zenit but since AVB appeared to almost have a season ticket at our stadium I expect more interest.

2.) Hakim Ziyech – The attacking fulcrum of my team. Ziyech helped himself to 23 goals and 11 assists whilst averaging 7.70 over the season. He’s another player that I’m expecting serious interest in over the summer. A large part of my pre season will be spent exploring potential back up plans.

1.) Tyler Blackett – Believe me nobody is more surprised by this than I am but Blackett has been imperious and has averaged 7.77 over the season. He rarely seems to make mistakes and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. I may have to try to tempt him away from United now.

The Future

Overall I think you’d have to grade our season as a success, Europe was a complete disaster and our cup performance isn’t even worth mentioning but to win the league by 12 points at the first time of asking is a huge accomplishment. Financially we are in a strong position with £3.8 Million in the bank and a projected balance of £9 Million after the season. Finances have been helped by our attendances as we have averaged 96% capacity over the course of the season.

Interestingly we also had the best defensive record in the league only conceding 25 goals over the course of the season despite our apparently porous tactical system. We also scored 71 goals behind only Ajax and PSV.

Overall we have started extremely well. I’m about to spend the offseason scouting potential replacements for the likes of Ziyech, Tapia and Gutierrez as I’m expecting significant bids for all three.

Well done if you’ve made if through all of that!

Initial FM15 Impressions From A Seasoned Player

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This is something of a first for this blog, a guest post. The author is Nick Davies who as of today is the proud owner of a brand new Football Manager forum having previously been an integral part of The Dugout. The new forum can be found at http://www.footballmanagernow.co.uk/ and is very much worth a look, you’ll find my and my writing there too.

If you’re anything like me, you await the new version of Football Manager with a mix of excitement and apprehension! Have they brought in the changes the game was crying out for, or have they changed something that didn’t need to be changed? The imminent arrival of FM15 has been no different.

Luckily for us, or perhaps SI, we have a beta version to whet the appetite. As such, it’s important to remember that it is just a beta and maybe things will change even further when the full game is released. If not straight away, then after the patching process.
For me, it’s always the smaller changes implemented by SI that I really appreciate. Imagine my horror then when I see the first, big change:

The New Side Menu

So they have completely changed the user interface and introduced a side menu. Imagine my even greater shock when I realise that as far as SI ideas go, it’s not half bad. There’s no bones about it, the side menu will take some getting used to and I still find my cursor automatically starting to move to the top of the screen only to be jarred to the side swiftly. I like the simplicity of the new menu and the fact that they introduced a ‘one-click-finds-all’ way of thinking. As has been documented already, the headlines page is too bright, but when viewed less regularly, I find it far more acceptable. Thankfully we can tone down the regularity with which we see it.

Scouting

My initial thought is that the page is very squashed. And I say that as someone who plays FM on a 24″ monitor. It’s basically the old player search screen and a condensed version of the scouting screen amalgamated together.

I understand the need for less clicking, but any more than four options selected in the search criteria and I’m having to scroll down those options anyway. So much for less clicking and it being more manageable.

When you drill into the actual scouting process it’s much more user friendly and SI have done a good job in making it more customisable with the added option to send your scout(s) looking for either a ‘first team player’ or a ‘backup player’ etc.  The addition of them choosing a position for that player, followed by a role, is also a welcome one, although admittedly not for everyone.

Scouting might take a bit longer to set up now, but the fact it’s more customisable makes up for that.

Also, somewhat linked to scouting, is the lovely little reminder you get that a league you have subscribed to is starting. You get an option to scout that league, which is a Godsend for those of us with squiffy memories!

Scout Reports

Lets be honest, they didn’t need changing. Do they contain any information that we couldn’t see from the FM14 version? Not that I’ve noticed, but I find them far easier to gauge a player at a glance. Straight away you can see if the pros outweigh the cons in the first half a second’s viewing. I like the bullet-point style

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Match-day Features

Lets be honest, the match-day experience is a massive part in the way most players view the game. If you’re one of those players that only use commentary only, you’ll miss all of what I’m about to explain I like. For me, this could be the difference between me using 2D or 3D this year.

Stewards. Yes,  the addition of stewards at games has got me genuinely excited and I’m not afraid to admit it. I don’t what it is. The way they stand there in their orange jackets with their arms folded behind their backs probably. The introduction of team colours in the stands gives the match some personality, as do the flags and jumbo screens. It feels far more immersive than ever before. Crowds seem to react to the action now rather than just being cardboard cut-outs at a football game. I don’t play with sound on (my missus would leave me) but I imagine if did, it’d push me over the edge of excitement!

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But all good things must come to an end and there are thing about FM15 that I don’t like. I know, how can a guy that likes the addition of stewards at games dislike anything, right? Wrong.

The Tactics Screen

No. Just no.

I’m not sure who thought of the idea or of the justification behind it but it doesn’t work and I hope SI see the error of their ways and change it sooner rather than later.
The removal of the roles and duty from the tactics screen is one of the biggest SI faux pas’ of the last decade. And I lived through the debacle that was CM4. Was that a decade ago? Probably longer. It’s far less manageable having them shifted over to the left and I’m not a fan of being able to see your squad until you sign them a position.

The whole idea of clicking the blank space to add a player is terrible, but even more so when the pop up box it opens doesn’t even listed players in order of position for you. It’s far easier to drag and drop, but takes far longer than the old way of right clicking on a player to fill a position. 

One good re-addition is the ability to click on a player on the tactics pitch to bring up his instructions. That’s good and that can stay.

Press Conferences

I expected a lot from these this year and have been left disappointed thus far. The initial meeting with the chairman and your assistant is exactly the same, thus not giving us any extra rapport with the man at the very top of the club. Chairman have needed more personality for years and this ‘welcome meeting’ would have been an excellent place to start.

Press conferences in general look very much the same. I’ve had a few different question so far, but most of them are the same but worded differently. I understand that it’d be very easy to make press conferences ‘too much’ and inundate the player with questions, but I’d like to see them be made more intelligent and react to what’s happening in-game.

The addition of interviews in the tunnel is nice, but again, the questions need to be made more intelligent with relative answers.

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Training

I’m big on my training and have never liked the change from the sliders. I’ve learnt to accept the change and the fact the sliders are never coming back. What I did expect to see though, was an evolution of the current way of doing things. I am left disappointed.
In individual training you can now set it based on ‘support’ or ‘attack’ duty should you wish to. The whole thing just feels like a bit of overkill to me. Again it takes longer, with too much clicking.

That said, I do like the fact we can now click on the ‘Squad Training Happiness’ graph and see who is unhappy and why.

Set Piece Creator

I feel like I’ve spoken until I’m blue in the face about this thing. It’s largely pointless and far too simplistic. I was hoping the additions of Prozone and the motion capture stuff would have seen a real revamp in set pieces, but nothing has changed since it’s introduction. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s EXACTLY the same.

It’d be amazing to be able to configure set piece routines instead of the wildly broad ‘near post’, ‘far post’ options. Being able to configure individual player runs would be pretty sweet and add a whole new dimension to the game.

As it is, I can leave set pieces alone, set a taker and still watch 8-12 goals be scored from corners and freekicks each season.

Conclusion

There are a number of ‘features’ that have been added in order to impress people with the ‘FM15 with 1,000 new features’ talk we have to endure pre-release, but there are also some good ones. There are clearly issues with the game to iron out, but the base is most definitely there for the best version of Football Manager ever.

There is plenty I haven’t experienced yet and I’m sure I’ll unlock some more pros and cons along the way.

The big flaws are the lack of movement on the set piece front and the tactics screen. The new scout reports are great and the match-day experience is the best it’s ever been.

Will I be getting the new game? Of course. But SI could have released FM14 with a data update and I’d still have bought it. Me and half a million others, I imagine.

Brazil Vs Germany – Why you shouldn’t believe statistics

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Possession: 47% – 53%

Shots: 18 – 14

Shots on target: 8 – 10

Corners: 7 – 5

Final Score? 1-7

The above statistics have obviously been taken from the World Cup semi final between Brazil and Germany and they make interesting reading. The only key statistic that I have missed from the list is pass completion but everything else is there in black and white. Is there anything that you can take from the above to give us an idea as to why the scoreline was so one sided? Germany had 6% more possession and had a better ratio of shots to shots on target but not by much.

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A Tactical Journey Through the World Cup

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The 2014 World Cup is almost upon us and like many others that play Football Manager I tend to get more attracted to the idea of International Management around the time of the tournament. This time though I wanted to do something different, in my opinion in order to win a World Cup a side has to have a degree of tactical flexibility to alter their starting lineup and system incrementally for each match depending on the opposition. This speaks directly to an article I wrote previously on reactive tactics and switching system mid match to take advantage of the AI’s weak points and I decided to see whether I could win a World Cup playing purely reactive football.

In order to make this work I needed to ensure that I would be able to pick a squad of largely multi-functional players that are able to play in if not necessarily different positions then at least different roles within their specialised position. For this reason I chose to manage Italy with their strong grounding in tactical football I should be able to switch systems easily. At this point I should acknowledge that some of you reading this will be turned off the idea given that I’m using such a strong and successful nation. I can see the point but if you read on then you will see that I suffered a horrific run of fixtures through the tournament that definitely negated any advantage I may have had, I should also admit that my run up to the tournament was disastrous with defeats to Uruguay and Japan as well as a goalless draw against Algeria.

That said the group draw was made and we would be facing U.S.A, Paraguay and Sweden – easy enough, right? Well let’s see…

Italy Vs USA 15/06/2014

So our first game in Brazil was against the Americans, on paper a relatively easy start but as Italians will well remember they have had issues playing against the US in the past. What though do we know of their style of play? As a stereotype we think of the Americans as being a physical and solid team although they may be lacking in terms of creativity and invention, how though did they set up in the match against us?

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Largely as we expected really with a deep two man pivot that is designed more as a defensive screen than a creative hub. They are technically strong in the final third with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey but there is a lack of pace. How though do would I identify the areas of the pitch that we can capitalise on?

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There are two areas of the pitch that I will look to exploit. First of all I will be looking to position a player in the advanced midfield position in order to interrupt the connection between Williams and Bradley in the deep pivot, this should mean that the US struggle to build an effective and sustained period of possession. I will also be looking to place a creative midfielder in the deep role on top of Clint Dempsey, he may be technically proficient but defensively he is suspect. How then did we line up?

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Our setup is quite self explanatory given the weak points that I identified in the American line up. We start with two centrebacks to counter the US playing a single man up front. De Rossi takes the central midfield point but as a Regista in order to control the game from on top of Clint Dempsey, There were a few options in the attacking midfield slot and I chose Insigne as  Trequartista to make it even more difficult for the American double pivot to defend effectively. How did the game go?

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 Our midfield diamond offers connections in the attacking phase that the Americans simply can’t deal with. De Rossi is in acres of space when he takes possession of the ball from Canderva and as you can see from the two deep defensive midfielders they have completely lost their structure and are effectively positioned on top of one another. If they were positioned properly and in a screen then the ball to the forward that moves in to the channel would be a lower percentage pass, as it was the forward took the ball easily and fed the full back creating an overload.

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Again you can see that our shape enables us to control the game from the centre of the pitch. The deep midfielders for American are effectively out of the game providing no threat at all to our midfielders whilst in possession and not being positioned to threaten our forwards when they take the ball and turn. By controlling the centre of the pitch in this manner we are able to build attacks from a position of strength and the Americans will struggle to transition to an attacking movement should our attack break down.

Strangely Jurgen Klinsmann failed to actually change his system over the course of the match and between them Dempsey, Bradley and Williams failed to complete 50 passes over 90 minutes. The base and point of our narrow diamond were able to negate any influence that those three players were able to exert over the game. A relatively easy start indeed then…

Italy 2 – 0 USA

 

Everton – The First Six Months

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After my Southampton save died a premature death I was searching for something new to hold my interest, I considered Italy and Germany but in the end my mind was made up after listening again to a quite superb interview in which Roberto Martinez answered the questions of a group of Everton fans, if you’re interested you can find the podcast of that conversation here.

As such and despite rarely playing in England over the last few years I found myself starting a new save in the North West of England. Part of the problem with my Southampton save though was that I was too successful too quickly, not necessarily in terms of winning the league but rather with winning the Champions League in my fourth season. In retrospect I think that I allowed myself too much freedom in terms of signing players and spending money so for this save I will impose a few restrictions.

  • I won’t allow myself to sign more than three players in one season (summer and winter transfer window)
  • I will only sign one player a year from outside Great Britain per season
  • By the end of my second season I will look to introduce two players to the first team from the youth team.

For the most part these restrictions are self explanatory. I’m looking to build a team with a nucleus of players from within the country as opposed to opening the check book and essentially buying success. The third restriction comes from the afore mentioned interview with Roberto Martinez in which he states that it’s in his opinion a realistic aim to bring through two players a season – this may well prove to be the most challenging.

To this point I have played the first 6 months of the season to January the first, now it’s time to update on progress so far.

The League

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If I’m honest I was surprised in my Southampton save by just how easy it was to be successful in the league – this time I’m not quite as surprised. We sit top and with Newcastle in second as out only real challengers at the moment I fully expect to be able to retain our position. We’ve been excellent against the top sides with out dropped points coming against Swansea (0-1) West Brom (1-1) and Crystal Palace (2-2) although we only squeezed past Manchester City with a last minute goal to win 3-2 having surrendered a 2-0 lead.

We’ve weathered a bit of a storm over the festive period where a congested schedule and injuries stripped our relatively small squad down to the bones. Now that we’ve emerged at the other side we have players coming back to full fitness and they should be ready to push on from here.

The Capital One Cup is the only other competition in which we have played so far this season and it’s been relatively straight forward with wins against Shrewsbury, Reading, Tottenham and Carlisle taking us through to the Semi Final against West Brom, it should leas to a chance for my first piece of silverware for the club.

Players

In terms of players it’s difficult to pick out a star to this point of the season. Ross Barkley has contributed 12 goals and 11 assists from the Enganche position although his 55 key passes so far is also an interesting return. He’s been ably supported by Steven Pienaar playing as one of my two Shadow Strikers with 11 goals so far. Romelu Lukaku could well have been the pick of the bunch had he not missed 11 games through injury so far. He still has 6 goals and 6 assists in 11 games so far.

Beyond those three special mentions have to go to the likes of Gareth Barry. 91% pass completion and 133 interceptions from the Half Back role, and Leighton Baines with 8 assists and 5 goals from left back.

We obviously face the same issue as Roberto Martinez does at the end of this season with Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry and Gerard Deulofeu all due to return to their parent clubs at the end of the season. Out of the three I think that we should be able to retain Gareth Barry as his contract is due to expire with Manchester City and they’ve shown no interest in a new deal to this point. If he does sign though he will be 33 next season and after that we will transition to the exciting Ryan Ledson who could go on to become something special. I should note that if I do sign Barry then I will be exercising a little duplicity in not counting him towards my three players that can be signed.

I would ideally like to be able to sign Lukaku to a permanent deal and he now has me listed as favoured personnel but any deal will be very much dependent on our financial situation and Chelsea’s willingness to make a deal. If he is not a realistic option then I have my eye on a couple of potential replacements with one of his Belgian team-mates at the top of the list.

Gerard Deulofeu is not a regular starter although I would be very interested in extending his loan deal as he has been excellent when called upon. If this turns out to not be an option then George Green will step up to fill his playing time from within the club.

Tactics

 

During my Southampton save I was asked several times via twitter if I would write about the tactics being used and I always said that I would and never got around to it. As such I thought I would include a sub section here to show the system in use in a little more detail. Let’s start with basic shape.

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In the attacking phase Barry tends to drop in to form a three with the two DC’s giving a base for the attack. Both fullbacks occupy extremely high positions causing overloads and adding a significant attacking threat. The two central midfielders are the pivots around which the play flows as they feed passes to either the wide full backs or to the three advanced players. As always though I feel that it’s best to give a visual representation of this in action.

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The above graphic show a recurring example of our defensive shape. Playing away against Manchester United we are happy to press them in their own half and although we only use a medium block it is very effective with the more passive attacking players cutting out the easy pass backwards and allowing the central players to press the man in possession. The shape of the back four and the fact that the Half Back is shielding so effectively make it very difficult for the AI to pass through us.

I had originally assumed that the system would lead to a high amount of interceptions from the two central players as they harass the man in possession so frequently. I was a little surprised when I checked the statistics,

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Our top 5 players in terms of making interceptions are actually our back five. It wasn’t until I looked a little more closely that I realised the AI were being pressed so effectively in most cases that they were trying to force passes in to areas that were heavily covered leading to a large amount of interceptions for our defensive players.

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Here’s an example of our movement in an attacking action. Gareth Barry has dropped deep to form a back three with the two DC’s this gives us an excellent base to attack from as the ball can come back and be shifted to either side quickly and safely. The fullbacks are very much involved in the attacking action stretching the AI horizontally. When the ball is played in to one of the two wide players he is supported by the strong side Shadow Striker and Playmaker pulling the AI defensive line out of position. As you can see we have very easily mechanised an overload in the central zone with two players isolating one defender and being able to attack space un opposed.

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Here is another example of our vertical movement in attack. In keeping with my relative obsession with Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli I like to have players quickly move forwards to support the man in possession and stretch the AI defence causing overloads. You can clearly see that with so many passing options and the additional option to carry the ball forwards himself the Enganche has the capacity to pick apart the AI at will.

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 Finally here’s an example of the effectiveness of having an out and out striker playing as a deeper Shadow Striker. It’s interplay between the Enganche and the two Shadow Strikers as the AI DC chooses to close down Barkley in possession he leaves a large gap in the defensive line that can be exposed. The ball cycles through Steven Pienaar who is able to angle the ball in to the path of Romelu Lukaku who has isolated the AI RB and is free to drive in to the space and score a relatively easy goal.

That’s just a small example of what makes this system so effective, I am planning a longer and more specific post on these tactics so if there are any elements that you’d like to see explained in more depth then please let me know.

I’ll leave it there for now but I’ll update again at the end of the season and you can keep up to date with the save via twitter.

As ever thanks for reading.

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