The Benfica Diaries 1.1

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So, it has been a while. Some three years since my last post on this blog I’m back. With the season finished now I find myself with a little more time and more importantly I find myself with the desire to write about Football Manager. I’m not going to promise weekly updates etc only that when I find the time and desire to write you will find my updates here.

So, why Benfica? The reasons are two fold mainly. I tend to get inspiration to play Football Manager from reading or watching football content. Certain things in particular trigger my desire to play, typically these revolve around recruitment or player development, I’ve recently been re-reading the excellent The European Game by Dan Fieldsend, a book incidentally which remains my favourite football book of all time, and the Benfica chapter of the book is an excellent insight in to the way that Benfica look to develop their young talents. I also listened to a podcast by Saul Isaksson Hurst on My Personal Football Coach where he talked with Benfica coach Joao Tralhao who gave an interesting look at the way that the different age groups develop their players within the academy. I am also interested in the curse of Bela Guttmann who swore when leaving his position as head coach of the club stated that the club would not become European Champions in 100 years. Can I break the Guttmann curse.

That therefore will give you a window in to my plans for this save and for this blog. I plan to tap in to the youth system within the club to develop young players for the first team. This will be supplemented by recruitment from three key areas, Portugal, South America and Eastern Europe. These three areas reflect the real life recruitment strategy of the club but in the first instance I will look to create a pathway for young players to the first team, if the youth team is light in a certain position then I will turn to my recruitment team.

I am in all honesty writing this as much for me as I am for you. I was reminded during a recent podcast appearance with the guys on the One More Game Podcast why I wrote about the game in the first place. This blog then will be a means for me to explain my views on football whether it is player development, recruitment, tactics or player profiles using the game as a vehicle to express my thoughts. There will be separate posts looking more in depth at these sections as well as some others. Actual season updates will be at a premium with the story of the season as I play told more in these separate sections than in anything else.

Hopefully by the time I come to the end of this series I will have codified some of my own thoughts on the game and provoked some discussion with all of you who may read and enjoy these posts.

500 words is enough for an introductory post. I’ll be back with 1.2 soon (ish).

The Isolation of Jefferson Montero



Football today is largely driven by narrative, the emergence within society of social media as led to people from all over the world being able to join in discussions around the game with opinion being gauged and narrative set. That is in part why it is so easy to become an overnight sensation in today’s game. That was highlighted at the beginning of this season when the Ecuadorian winger Jefferson Montero shone so brightly for Swansea in consecutive matches against Chelsea and Newcastle United. The performances of Montero in these games echoes back to a previous generation of footballers before the introduction of inverted wingers and the reintroduction of inside forwards as Montero’s performance on the left wing left experienced Chelsea full back Branislav Ivanovic with twisted blood and led to Dutch international full back Daryl Janmaat being sent off for two rash challenges in the early stages of the match. Jefferson Montero is a stereotypically old fashioned South American winger with great pace and the capacity to beat a man going inside or outside, he is not however an overnight sensation.

Whilst it is true that Swansea signed Montero directly from Morelia in the Mexican Liga MX that does not mean that this is the Ecuadorians first exposure to football in Europe. In 2009 Montero moved to Villarreal of Spain, a club that is well renowned for spotting young talent in South America. There was little doubt in Spain that Montero was a player of real promise but he never quite managed to add consistency to his skilful attacking play and after loan spells at both Levante and Real Betis he chose to move back to a more familiar style of football and joined Morelia of Mexico. Why then has Montero suddenly developed a sense of consistency that has been missing from his career to date? The answer lies at least in part with the tactical system that Montero now finds himself in at Swansea under coach Gary Monk. Last season Monk held true to the tactical framework that had been used by his predecessors Michael Laudrup and Brendan Rodgers with two wide players holding high positions and stretching the field horizontally as well as vertically. This year however after a productive summer of recruitment the framework has altered slightly in a way that has created more freedom and opportunity for Montero on the left hand side.

Using the half space

One of the keys to the summer recruitment for Swansea was the signing of Andre Ayew on a free transfer from French club Marseille. The Ghanian international brings a lot of experience to the club but he also possesses a high level of tactical intelligence which has allowed Monk and his staff to experiment with different structures and combinations throughout the side. One of the first shifts has seen Ayew playing primarily on the right but with more freedom to come off of the line and play in the half space between the centre and the right hand side.

Ayew moves in to the half space

 In this image you can see Ayew circled in red and currently situated in the half space that I have marked on the image, in taking up the more central position Ayew has emptied the entire right flank and the Swansea right back has advanced in to an attacking player. In this example Swansea have six players staggered across the right side of the pitch overloading the opposition defence and forcing them to narrow their position. This gives Swansea both a series of strong connections through which to move the ball on the right side and an advantage on the far side of the pitch where Montero and the Swansea left back will both be isolated against an one or two defensive players at most.

Montero wide position

Here once again Ayew has moved from his apparent starting position on the right flank and taking up a position in the half space. Once again the structure of the Swansea attack means that there are five Swansea players involved in the initial build up but once again Montero is left in a wide and high position ready for the play to be switched to the left side.

Montero isolated

Here you can see Shelvey in possession of the ball on the right hand side of the pitch and once again Montero is isolated against the defensive player on the left flank. With the range of passing that Shelvey has the long switch is always an option and Swansea use that concept very well.

This practice of overloading one side of the pitch and isolating attacking players on the other side is a tactical concept that has become popular in European football over the last few months with Bayern Munich in particular using Douglas Costa in the Montero role and creating opportunities for him to get the ball in one on one situations with the opposition defender. Being part of this trend further reinforces Gary Monk’s position as one of the more tactically progressive young coaches in European football.

Tactical Intelligence

Whilst it helps that Swansea have been able to implement a system to make the most of group dynamics created by the new signings at the club it is still important that players have the necessary skill to beat a defender in a one on one situation and make the most of the opportunities being presented. Montero excels in this with his pace and willingness to attack space behind defensive players.

montero options

Here you can see an image captured when Montero takes possession of the ball in an advanced position on the left flank and you can see that the Newcastle defenders are fully aware of the danger he poses as three men are closing him down. A player like Montero though always has options and although the most common option that he will choose is to attack the fullback down the wide channel to get to the touchline he also has the capacity to attack the space to the inside of the deepest defender or to cut square to create an opportunity for a strike at goal. This capacity to do the unexpected makes him very hard to defend and means that when he is isolated on the left side he is even more dangerous to opponents.

Montero Presses

Swansea are by no means Bayern Munich or Barcelona when it comes to pressing the ball high up the field but they are very capable of utilising situational pressing when the need arises. When the opposition have weak possession or when the defensive players are weak on the ball then they will press the ball. When they do press in this situation Montero is one of the key players as his speed means that he can close the man on the ball down very quickly. He is also very adept at using his positioning and his body to prevent the defensive player from being able to play the easy pass out of the defence.

It is clear that so far this season Swansea have been utilising a slightly different structure to their play with the key reason for that shift being the signing of Andre Ayew and his tactical flexibility but at the same time the individual qualities of players like Jefferson Montero play a large role in the positive start to the season that we have seen so far. If they can continue to build on this interesting framework and play to the strengths of players like Montero then there is no reason that they cannot challenge for a European place.

Stefano Pioli’s Flexible System




When Vladimir Petkovic was sacked by Lazio president Claudio Lotito after agreeing to take over the Swiss national side the side from Rome turned as so many other Italian sides do to a former coach. Edoardo Reja had initially left Lazio in 2012 after a relatively successful spell in charge and had been replaced by Petkovic. Under both coaches though the criticism from the fans and the media was the same, Lazio lacked a defined tactical identity.

With Reja in charge they were often cautious to a fault playing slow methodical football and failing to take the initiative against teams that would use a low block and compact shape to slow the game down. In part Petkovic was appointed due to his reputation for playing fluid attacking football having set his Young Boys side up in a 3-4-3 system whilst managing in Switzerland. The reality however was somewhat different and Petkovic instituted a strategy that saw Lazio concentrate largely on playing quickly in transitions but still the familiar failings against the low block remained. After Reja left the club for a second time a host of relatively big names were linked to the vacancy, so you can understand the disillusion of the Lazio fans when Stefano Pioli, especially when you consider that Pioli had already experienced failure in his managerial career with spells at the likes of Parma, Sassuolo, Chievo, Palermo and Bologna to name a few.

What the Lazio fans perhaps did not expect was for Pioli to display a level of tactical flexibility and intelligence that belied his managerial career to this point. In terms of systems Pioli started his time with Lazio using almost exclusively a 4-3-3 although at times the attack was left isolated with a lack of a truly dynamic runner from the midfield three. This led to a rethink from Pioli and a switch to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 with two central players in a double pivot providing the base for the attacking players to exploit. No matter which system was employed though Pioli promoted quick, attacking, fluid football with a front three that had permission to interchange and switch positions to take advantage of space in the attacking third. The central attacking midfielder is given licence to roam across the width and depth of the pitch often dropping deep to link with the two central midfielders and leaving a pocket of space for others to move in to. This exciting attacking system has seen Lazio rise to third in the table with one match remaining. If they can avoid defeat then they will qualify for next seasons Champions League. Let’s break down the system used by Pioli so far this season.

Defensive Phase

In the defensive phase Pioli likes to maintain flexibility by using a medium block and neither committing a large amount of resources forward to press the ball nor leaving space behind the defensive block that the opposition can exploit with direct passes. As much as possible Lazio try to disengage their defensive line from pressuring the ball carrier to maintain their shape. That means that the midfielders in particular have to work a lot harder to press the ball and stop the defensive line from becoming overloaded by midfield runners.

defensive support

In this example you can see that the Lazio defensive line has positioned themselves at the 18 yard line. In these deep defensive positions it is normal for the central attacking midfielder to drop deep to support the two central midfielders and as you can see there are three Lazio midfielders set up in a narrow defensive shape. The player closest to the ball will apply pressure to the ball carrier to prevent a dangerous pass or shot whilst the central of the three players will look to support him to prevent the Cagliari player beating him in a one on one situation. The far side central midfielder is then free to track any midfield runners that threaten to overload the defensive line.

There are times however when a medium block can be exposed defensively in that the gaps between the midfield and attack of the defence and midfield can be too large and the opposition can overwhelm the defensive structure by using quick direct passes in transition to attack the space.

No cohesive defensive shape

Here you can see that Chievo have looked to bypass their midfield and used a long diagonal pass to the wide area, the gap between the Lazio defence and the double pivot in midfield is too large and exposed and any Chievo player either dropping in to the space or moving forwards to occupy the space will be in a position to cause a real problem to the Lazio defenders.


Over the last few years there has been a huge movement amongst both amateur and professional analysts to promote the idea that the transition phase is the key phase in the game. The idea is that when you first lose the ball the opposition player that has recovered possession will be exposed without immediate support for a short pass and that therefore if you apply immediate pressure there is a chance of winning the ball back immediately. At the same time the belief is that should you win the ball back in a deep position from the opposition then the other team should be in the attacking phase and not set in defensive positions. A quick direct pass can often lead to an attacking overload and increase your chances of scoring. Lazio under Pioli are very effective with direct transitions.

Bypass midfield

Here you can see Lazio attacking in transition in a 4-2-3-1 shape. The ball has just been recovered and the immediate direct pass to the strikers feet is used and the entire opposition midfield is bypassed. By playing an immediate lay off to a supporting player facing the opposition goal the entire width of the field is opened up. Pioli encourages his wide players to attack the gaps in the defensive line looking to force the defensive line backwards and open up more space to to play in the opposition half.

MC breaks lines

This time Lazio again utilise the direct first pass although this time it is the attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 that has dropped in to a deep position to receive the ball. This piece of movement though has emptied a significant space between the opposition defence and midfield and when the AM drops deep one of the two central midfielders is given licence to move in to more advanced areas. Here you can see that the striker will either look to hold his position or drop in to the space that has been left whilst the two wide attackers attack the spaces in the defensive line.

Attacking Phase

There are two key elements to the attacking play under Pioli, fluidity and support. The midfield setup with a double pivot especially lends itself to lines of support in the attacking movement.

pivot in possession

Here you can see that with Cagliari sitting in a low or medium block the double pivot is ideal in terms of maintaining and developing possession of the ball. There are clear passing lanes between the two central midfielders and the three defensive players that are closest to the ball so that the angle and depth of the attacking movement can be changed easily and quickly without fear that the opposition can pressure the ball effectively.

structural shifts

This is an example of Lazio in a sustained attacking phase when the ball has already been recycled backwards at least once and the opposition have set up in a defensive position. In this instance the central striker has found himself in a wide left position and has moved laterally to a central area. This in turn draws the opposition full back in to a more narrow position and opens up space on the left flank. The Lazio full back is able to exploit the space and the fluid attacking movement is completed by the left sided central midfielder who moves left in to a support position both allowing the ball to move backwards easily and making sure that the opposition can’t exploit space in a quick transition.

This fluid movement and close support make it very difficult to defend against Lazio over an extended period as they are extremely adept at creating and exploiting pockets of space in the attacking movement.

Stefano Pioli would almost certainly have not been the first choice amongst Lazio fans to take over from the popular Edoardo Reja but in his first season he has already experienced remarkable success – success that has seen him linked to the Italy national team job should Antonio Conte be lured back to club football. Juventus are without a doubt the strongest team in Italian football at the moment but there is no reason to doubt that Lazio could be in a position to challenge them next season if the board choose to back their coach with a strong recruitment drive over the summer. Stefano Pioli is another example of a coach that has failed in previous jobs but has the game intelligence to learn from his own mistakes and come back a stronger and better prepared coach. The future is bright for Lazio

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

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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;


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.


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


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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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;



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.


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 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.


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



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!



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.




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.


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.

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