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.
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.
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!