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.