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[FM21] Benefit of Hindsight


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Dale Vince is known to be a visionary. As Chairman of Forest Green Rovers, he has revolutionised football whilst showing us a glimpse of the future in which we live sustainably with the environment. I’d like to invite you to imagine, if you will, that his visionary powers extended into realms you’d never dreamt of.

We shall go back in time to the year 2001. It was year I first played Championship Manager, and my last year living in England before venturing into a parallel universe here in Cambodia. Using MadProfessor’s 2001/02 database for FM21, I’m taking you into a world where, many years before data, statistics, analysis or Moneyball had entered the football world’s consciousness, Dale Vince had devised a programme that could predict with unerring accuracy, which 14-16 year old kids would go on to become world-beating footballers.  A full decade before he officially bought the club, Dale was operating under the radar to persuade 22 young kids and their families to relocate from many regions around the world to Nailsea, just outside Bristol in Somerset, England.

 

DALE VINCE

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In July 2001 he hired me to be the new manager of Forest Green Rovers. He’s already hired a complete new backroom and brought in the kids – I had no say in hiring. He explained to me his vision to nurture these youths into not only global football stars, but to make them model citizens, exemplars of the future he envisioned. Everyone had to buy into the ethos – we would all be well-paid, but there were to be no bonuses or any element of material greed. He told me that many of the kids tended to be show-boating individualists and my task was to teach them collectivism and teamwork. There was to be no favouritism, no rivalry, and everyone had to be given a fair chance. That’s why the squad, purged of U23 and U18 teams, was so small.

And he did pay well. On learning my salary, I played it cool, then rushed down to the local estate agent and building society, and learned what mortgage I could get. My wife was delighted – for a few moments anyway, until we discovered that you could just about afford a retirement apartment for that in Nailsea. There was one exception immediately available and we didn’t hesitate to put in an offer and seal the deal.

 

NAILSEA

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FULL OF CHARM AND CHARACTER! A beautifully presented period property with the benefit of three double bedrooms located on the edge of a conservation area. This wonderful home has been sympathetically modernised etc etc

Nailsea house.jpg

 

 

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So the idea of this narrative is to see whether collecting these wonderkids together and playing competitively in the 5th tier of English football makes or breaks them. Dale is in the process of developing a new stadium with La Masia-like facilities for the youths, and they're expected to loyally stay with us whilst it's being built.

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But will the squad survive in this division? Will we rise up the pyramid? One thing that was immediately apparent to me when we first met in a team meeting is how tiny the squad is. We're not talking about strapping big lads that constitute lower league English football - half of them are 4-foot nothing twinkle-toe merchants. It’s also apparent that most of them can’t speak a word of English beyond “Man on!” and “I love you”.

 

CURRENT HOME: THE NEW LAWN

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We are the mighty FOREST GREEN ROVERS!

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And - Meet the Manager

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Dale has drafted in 22 kids, intended to be a first teamer and a back up for each position in a 4-2-3-1 formation. You know them. Very well. Most of them. Here they are:

Goalkeepers

 

Igor Akinfeev                     Russian                15

Manuel Neuer                  German                15

Akinfeev.jpg

Neuer.jpg

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Right Fullbacks

 

Arturo Vidal                       Chilean                 14

Coke                                    Spanish                14

 

Coke.jpg

 

Vidal.jpg

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Centre Backs

 

Sergio Ramos                    Spanish                14

Gerard Pique                     Spanish                14

Vincent Kompany             Belgian                 15

Cristian Zapata                 Columbian           14

 

Kompany.jpg

Pique.jpg

 

 

Ramos.jpg

Zapata.jpg

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Left Fullbacks

 

Gael Clichy                         French                  16

Andres Guardado             Mexican               14

Clichy.jpg

 

Guardado.jpg

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Ball-Winning Midfielders

 

Sully Muntari                     Ghanian               16

Blaise Matuidi                   French                  14

 

Muntari.jpg

Matuidi.jpg

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Deep-Lying Playmakers

 

Luka Modric                      Croatian              15

Cesc Fabregas                   Spanish               14

Fabregas.jpg

Modric.jpg

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Dale expects us to reach the play-offs and FA Cup 3rd round. This season! It’s going to take time to bulk these boys up and mould them into a coherent unit. If we can survive this season we can go places the next. Fair play he’s spent a heck of a lot of money on this venture -  but THIS season? There could be tensions.

 

Well, the first couple of days have been exhausting, and I can say with some certainty that as much out of my depth here as the youngest of the young kids. My background is steeped in (very) lower league management – the amateur scene with 20 spectators behind a roped-off cordon, changing in the car park, me and my assistant driving to the next village in a Ford Fiesta to check out our opponents, the local PE teacher brining us the school-leavers too thick for college. Dale has presented me with a thoroughly professional team, recruited from around the world, buying into his ethos of solar power and tofu. I’ve got analysts talking gobbledegook to me, scouts who know the markets in Europe and South America (I don’t think I have to deal with them personally, but I hope I have people here who can translate into English rather than this stat-bombing lingo). Admittedly the state-of-the-art medical facilities will be utterly necessary – I will have to drive these delicate kids very hard on the training ground to get them to be competitive whilst we still have a chance of meeting Dale’s targets. They will break and I have a dearth of cover, so they need to be mended quickly. They seem good people though, who know what they’re doing. At least Dale allowed me to choose my own coaching staff and has given me control over the training ground.

While waiting for my new coaching team and equipment to arrive for our initial boot camp, I spent time getting to know the lads. Fortunately, Dale had the foresight to hire teachers and interpreters for them – I hope they’ll gain a modicum of English sooner rather than later. But it’s primarily me who’s responsible for instilling a group ethos on the football pitch and that will be challenging. These prima donnas have been told how ‘special’ they are their entire young lives, and from the outset they’ve bombarded me with demands to do this and that their ways.

An afternoon of sprints and kick-abouts on the training ground revealed a little more. Dale requires me to develop an attacking, possession-based style, which seems to suit what I have except the defenders are not quick which will compromise the need to hold a high line. He also insists we make the most of set pieces – how? Podolski is the only player who shows and capacity to deliver dead balls but he’s our striker and only he and Ronaldo are tall enough to get on the end of crosses.

Talking of Ronaldo (what a pretentious name!), he’s really full of himself. He’s also our most talented player and one of the oldest in the group – I’ll need to work out how to channel his energies with out reducing tactics to ‘give the ball to CR7’ (as he’s named himself). He and all the attacking midfielders are just concerned with scoring themselves – I’m going to have to focus in the bootcamp on teamwork and work-rate because those qualities are entirely absent. I will need to compromise though – I can see no one’s going to be satisfied stuck out on the flanks, so I’ll need to devise a system with inverted wingers or forwards, which would necessitate my fullbacks playing as wingbacks despite them being the slowest and weakest parts of the unit. Did I say this would be challenging?

These tables show the extremes I'm working with:

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Okay, I need to prepare for a couple of weeks of intensive training, and those still standing will show what they’ve learnt in the pre-season friendlies.

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On the second day of the boot camp Dale came to me with news of trouble in the Podolski family, and regretted the lad would have to return home. He was already demonstrating signs that he was our best player and key getter-of-goals, so this was unfortunate. Dale assured me his recruitment team had another German kid in reserve, and the following day a 16-year-old Robert Lewandowski joined us. Half the height of Podders, he looked more similar to our 14-year-olds despite his age, and he didn’t show much goal-scoring ability.

In fact, he could only play on one of the wings, so my first thought was Ronaldo would have to move up to fill the striker spot. He was delighted, and already I’d have to let him get his way even though the re-positioning wasn’t ideal for the team as his ‘finishing’ skills were the weakest part of his game, and I already knew he was loathed to pass even from a deeper position.

The alternatives are to use either Benzema or Rooney as striker. Wayne can press and play deeper, so he might be better suited to the system. I could move Modric further up the park, which is what he wants, but it would leave no back-up for Fabregas in central midfield, so either Messi or Silva could move infield. We’ll see how the friendlies go as I chop and change to find the sweet spot.

That evening, Dale popped in at dinnertime to present me with the team’s code of conduct. I did say that it’s supposed to be negotiated with the manager, club captain and players, but he retorted that we don’t yet have a captain and the kids are too young. They have to learn leadership and responsibility, which is my job to instil, but for the time being, Dale would take command. Furthermore, he explained that he’d listened carefully to my concerns and agreed to drop his request to make the most of set pieces. On the other hand he did insist I kept to his wage budget even though it is already exceeded by the contracts he’s given out to these 22 boys. Thanks, Dale. Just as he was leaving, he turned with a ‘Just one more thing…; “After your bootcamp we’ll be off to a training camp where we start with a friendly against Watford.” That’s First Division Watford, managed by the great Gianluca Vialli. Yikes.

 

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After the gruelling boot camp, I arranged a couple of friendlies to break up the tedium and get a first look at what it’s all about. I invited the students at Cardiff Met up first. It was the summer term break, so they weren’t at full strength. With evidence of team work sorely lacking, we conceded the first goal, but some quality finishing by the Everton lad Rooney put us 2-1 up at the break. I changed 10 at half-time, leaving Benzema out as her nobbled himself in training the previous day. It meant Ronaldo got an extended run-out.

So with 20 teammates to pass to, he chose only one while he was on the pitch – he seems to begrudgingly respect Messi’s quick mind, but his body language gave away what he thought about everyone else. His attitude also annoyed to opposition so much that they kicked him off the park and Karim got half an hour anyway. He immediately did what Cristiano had steadfastly refused to and laid on a lovely cross-field pass to an onrushing Lewandowski for a third, and Guardado did similar from the left flank to give Suarez   a tap-in, making the final result a very pleasing 4-1. Even more pleasing, my experiments to use Lewandowski as an Inverted Winger and Benzema as an Inside Forward paid immediate dividends. Ronaldo’s groin strain will keep him out of the majority of pre-season, which kind of solves one issue in the short-term if merely kicking the can down the road.

 

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                                Rooney.jpg.5a24acb315d98463e2f9d212844b36ce.jpg                          Lewandowski.jpg.86e5372e9bd0db0bd7ff98fe10efebb7.jpg                              suarez.jpg.d7e19dd4a1c384df71ba46751942b2e6.jpg

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The second game, against Bath City, followed a spookily similar pattern.

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We conceded early doors again, only to equalise with a header from the shortest lad in the league, Lionel Messi. Lewandowski repeated his trick coming in from the left to fire home, and Modric     made it 3-1 with a shot from the edge of the box. We also witnessed our first penalty, taken by designated expert – the goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. He missed.

 

Messi.jpg.3542d5a656649f928aeb1c9d3b1bbc30.jpg         Lewandowski.jpg.f87b75a669ebbaa9a7d75f8cf0c277c6.jpg         Modric.jpg.017fe81b8946d4afc028457aef73f754.jpg

 

The third friendly was against Yeovil Town.

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We won comfortably, 2-0 with another goal from the edge of the area by a deep-lying midfielder – Fabregas this time, and a close-range poke by Rooney.  

Fabregas.jpg.5b44656f7b5f7c015fc8c01d1c636cfc.jpg              Rooney.jpg.74c4e7508e6874b5420b77658fa8d6fa.jpg

 

There were three points of interest for me – firstly the attendances at all our friendlies has been a revelation to me – interest in the international wonderkids is intense – or is it just that I’m used to 20-30 mums and dads turning out? Secondly, the awkward truth is that we’re doing extremely well without that prima donna Ronaldo. And third, Yeovil are in our league, albeit tipped to struggle. The manner of the victory suggests to me that we won’t be struggling in the Vanarama National, although that’s not to say I’m confident in meeting Dale’s target of the play-offs. We’ve already had five injuries these last two weeks – that’s going to bite us in a long, hard season.

The last friendly before the training camp was against Cambridge United.

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They’re two levels above us in the Second Division but we gave them a good game, going down 1-2. This time we got off to a quick start with Suarez poaching in the six-yard box in the first minute.  The next match will be the Watford one. I’m no longer terrified.

suarez.jpg.14b2c2b6b94fa38014088ed5f654a770.jpg

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Dale turned up with jacket and cap, announcing he was driving the team bus to out mystery destination. Half an hour later he insisted we had arrived at our destination – Bristol. Great. Groans were heard, but Dale pointed out that there was to be no hanky-panky – we had an image to maintain – clear cut young men focussed on their football. We were to hear alternative rumours concerning some of the Watford and Rangers lads, but that was not our concern.    Not that Watford suffered any distractions.

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We were brought back down to Earth with an almighty thump. Modric’ s  meaningless strike in a 1-8 thrashing was our only bright moment. The defence was thoroughly schooled – we simply had no answers. Well, the lads had no answers; I should probably have shown Watford more respect by having the lads defend deeper and play more conservatively. Even Ronaldo’s return for the last half hour produced nothing. The wake-up call will have done the boys a world of good though.

 

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We responded well in the next game, losing only 0-3 to QPR, who are two divisions above us and fielded a strong side.

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Morale was suffering after three straight defeats, so I arranged to play some patsies in the form of Shortwood United from the other side of Bristol ahead of our first competitive match. We made short work of Shortwood, running out 5-1 victors with a brace from Silva  and goals from Suarez, Rooney and a Guardado penalty. We managed that without four of our players who had been called up for international youth matches – Ronaldo, Modric, Akinfeev and Clichy. They would also be missing for the start of our season three days later.

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Silva.jpg.0eef81a45b3990e3b8dfc0492eda593c.jpg         suarez.jpg.8e659dd9644524a7d55c8a1ae02aee8b.jpg        Rooney.jpg.b2b04209ede8221fc22f2d6fe3d3ee94.jpg       Guardado.jpg.5ebe347b8cf7320e2b4608a9637b762f.jpg

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And so the big day arrived. A small Big Day – the first game in a competition Dale has no interest in, but it was to be a debut not only for all the lads, but for me too at this level; the Papa John’s Trophy opening fixture away at Third Division Luton Town.

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Yes, we’d lost all our games against league opposition and we’d be without four of our key players, but I really felt the lads were now au fait with my tactics, and the local derby victory had put the fans in good spirits. It was a very evenly-matched game with us edging the xG. Man-of-the-match David Silva opened the scoring but we lost 1-2. I probably erred in taking off Benzema at half-time for a fatigued and ineffectual Ronaldo who rushed back to be part of the group.

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Spirits were high, and we rounded off September with three more friendlies, thrashing Havant & Waterlooville 4-0 (Suarez, Lewandowski, Cazorla and Ramos), edging Accrington Stanley 3-2 (Ronaldo 2, 1 pen and Rooney), and coasting past Bradford Park Avenue 5-2 with a goal from Matuidi, 2 by Rooney and 2 injury-time strikes from Messi. We even had the luxury of another Akinfeev penalty miss.

We thus completed our pre-season with a consistent record of beating every side in lower tiers and losing every match to sides in higher tiers. It’s been an extremely valuable time – the lads have visibly grown in stature and confidence and are fully pumped for the season ahead. They’ve adapted to my tactics well in most cases and I feel I know mostly what to expect (plenty of goals, I think, and a serious weakness in the right-back position). My main concern is the size of the squad as I expect these kids to pick up a lot of knocks as they’re bullied on the pitch, along with training ground strains as we work them to the max. They’re a super-dedicated group of lads on the training ground too – the coaching staff can’t speak highly enough of them.

Okay, we’re ready. October is rolling around, and the league season is about to get underway. The boys decided that our manic attacking sweeper-keepers should be our captain and vice-captain, and I asked the groundsman to make our pitch the minimum legal size to optimise the chances of our neat pass-and-move style outwitting stronger, bigger and faster opponents.

 

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The early season schedule is too intense and brutal in terms of looking after these young lads. It’s a relentless Tuesday-Saturday schedule, giving the boys insufficient time to recover between games. I’ll need to think of a careful rotation policy and hope there are no serious injuries sustained.

I sat down with the statto team to look at what we’d learned over the pre-season. In midfield, Fabregas had started the most games (9) and Modric at the other extreme – only one. The other midfield spot had been dominated by Matuidi (8) as opposed to Muntari (only 2). Lewandowski also started 8 games as he’s missed most of the first week and I needed to assess him.

Rooney was easily our highest goalscorer with 7, followed by our other striker, Suarez with 4. Lewandowski and Messi pitched in with 3 each. Ronaldo actually had the highest xG, indicating that he is too selfish and wasteful, as I’d suspected.

The midfielders Modric and Muntari (also our best tackler) had excellent successful passing stats, along with Silva and the cool-headed Ramos at the back. He might well develop into a ball-playing defender, but we’ll focus on the basics for now. Messi had a high rate of successful dribbles (as opposed to Ronaldo’s mostly unsuccessful dribbles as he doesn’t know when to release the ball). For all that, our stats team still rated Ronaldo as our best player, significantly ahead of Rooney and Modric (“See, you can prove anything with statistics!” was my response to that). Ramos and Kompany also stood out as rocks at the back – against lower league opposition anyway. At the other end of the scale, there are lads who are way short of the required standard, but whom we’ll have to play frequently, Stand-outs are the two right-backs, Coke and Vidal, and young Benzema, Cazorla and Pique. Hopefully they just need more time and experience. Apart from Manuel Neuer, all the lads will get plenty playing time from the off.

So after all due assessment, this is what our tactics will look like going into the new season:

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And so the day rolled along, Saturday 3rd October 2001, the start of a new journey, commencing in the Vanarama National League.  

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We hosted Barnet, tipped by pundits at 7/1 for the title, same odds as us (now matching Vance’s expectations) – a perfect opponent to measure ourselves against.

I put out what I estimated to be our strongest XI for this game. Unfortunately, on the morning of the big match, Messi over-exerted himself in weight training – I blame myself for pushing the pint-pot too hard. He’d be out for at least 3 weeks. This news was immediately followed by the calling up of our 4 youth internationalists and the postponement of 2 matches – a factor I can expect on multiple occasions I guess. In the short-term, Messi will miss fewer games, but it all points towards relentless fixture scheduling to come.

The boys were clearly nervous and played well within themselves. The first half was a complete non-event, but a clumsy challenge on Ronaldo in the second half gifted us a penalty and finally, when it really counted, Akinfeev converted. With that, we started playing some football. Ronaldo added a second vis a marvellous long pass by Muntari. So, we started slowly but ended very comfortably with a 2-0 victory.

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             Akinfeev.jpg.57b62dae3ddca2d9945e074cc5c7cd83.jpg                                             Ronaldo.jpg.681f3c5d4a70df722f6176d03902cfc5.jpg

A goal-scoring goalkeeper - you LOVE to see it!  :hammer:

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We didn’t have another league match until after the ‘international break’, but we did have to fit a midweek game in that sucky cup. It was against Southend, a division higher than us. After telling us in the pre-season that it wasn’t important, Dale then informed us after I’d picked all the players who sat out the first match that we did need to compete and qualify from the group. I’m learning to be wary of this guy. There were very few chances in the game – our defence is proving to be very well-organised and reliable, but we need to be more clinical at the other end. Rooney scored to make it 1-1 at full time. In the shoot-out we scored 6, with Ronaldo and Fabregas missing only to be bailed out by the sudden-death boys until Pique, never expected to be called upon, had his well-saved. Dale might think otherwise, but for me, taking a Third Division side all the way to lose 6-7 on penalties is a result for the lads. All of them now, bar the injured Messi, have played competitive football and no one has let us down.

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After discussions with the defence, led by Kompany, we tried a tweak to the tactics in our second league game at Solihull Moors. It proved successful, although after Benzema gave us an early lead and we were coasting, Akinfeev messed up a corner and allowed them to equalise. We bombarded their goal in search of a deserved winner, which eventually arrived with a superb volley from Matuidi. 2-1 was closer than it ought to have been and we need Rooney to contribute more, but otherwise; it was a good solid performance.

 

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With little time to reflect we're next into a local derby at Yeovil in midweek. With Messi not yet ready to return, Fabregas did his ankle in and will be out for a month. Nevertheless, the boys are feeling confident, remembering how we turned them over 2-0 in an early friendly. They have won their last 2 games however, and will be feeling positive themselves. I'm anticipating a lively duel.

In the meantime, I’ve been locked in some intense meetings with my coaching staff in recent days. We’re debating how to strike a balance between short-term and long-term interests, and how much risk we should allow ourselves. The matter would be straightforward if Vince was content to let us coast in the league this season, but demanding we make the play-offs adds real pressure. Fortunately, we’ve made a decent start. Firstly, there’s the question of how hard (actually, how much harder) we push the boys. On the whole, they’re a professional and fit bunch of lads, although Messi and Ronaldo are picking up more niggles than I’d like. In fact, my team – most of whom have more experience at larger clubs that I do tell me that it’s much easier to work with such a small squad than manage a large number, many of whom lose motivation on the training ground when they see themselves as far from turning out regularly for the first team.

It’s odd that their commitment on the training ground doesn’t translate to an impressive work ethic on the pitch, but I think that’s a maturity issue that will dissipate with experience. I’m arguing that we need to bulk them up and inject more speed throughout the squad right now, leaving technical niceties for a year or two, and the sports science department seem to endorse that approach, providing we scale it down if injuries do mount up. The second main dilemma is how much we focus on preparing for upcoming matches at the expense of long-term development. We’ve decided to play that by ear – so long as we are challenging around the top of the table, we’ll go light on match prep, but if we start to struggle – either through loss of form or first-choice players, we’ll need to redirect our efforts to the upcoming matches. Two things we did agree on was to have a match review session with the coaches and data wonks after every game. We felt it would speed up the time to get the squad to be sufficiently cohesive on the pitch. And the other thing was to have weekly Community Outreach sessions which would have the double-benefit of improving morale and training the boys in the kind of ethical outlook Dale sees as so important.

In contrast, the first meeting with my scouting team was a bit of a disaster. It seems I’ll need to take a crash course in Italian before the next one. I couldn’t keep up with all their chat about mezzazulas, liberals, attacking treehuggers, gauche midfielders and whatever. There’s no urgency really – I’m not looking to bring any more kids in until the Spring.

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And so onto the Yeovil tie. With it being an awayday derby, I opted to play my strongest available line-up, given the weekend game would be in the FA Cup against lower league opposition.

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The result was disappointing, if understandable. In front of the biggest crowd they had experienced, the lads were affected by the hostile local atmosphere at Huish Park, and the match was short on quality. Despite hemming the Yeovil in their own half for nearly all of the 90 minutes, we created very little until Ronaldo bagged a second half equaliser, and late tactical tweak s and substitutions resulted in Suarez giving us a lead. That should have been that, but Akinfeev was culpable for a second soft goal on the night, and we only came away with a 2-2 draw.

                       Ronaldo.jpg.f33b788891fb9817c3cac7ecd3b74b1a.jpg                          suarez.jpg.8f56d1fedc54394923a7b0d880994deb.jpg
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That midweek tie was followed by our first game in the FA Cup. It was the Fourth Qualifying Round, and we were home to Kettering Town. All the non-starters in the last game were due to begin this one, except for the injured Fabregas, and Benzema who’d taken a knock. Just before the team sheets were handed in, however, Messi felt that his hamstring wasn’t right, so he had to delay his comeback.

I’d given all the boys short minutes in an Under-18s cup game a couple of days before and they’d been excellent, so I don’t know why they weren’t fired up for this one. Kettering took an unexpected if not undeserved lead as we were sloppy all over the pitch. In our only real moment of quality, just before half time Lewandowski came in from the wing to meet a Modric through ball and converted, but I still let rip at them at half time. Within 15 seconds of the restart, Ronaldo had belted in a worldie and we were playing football. Another swerving volley from Matuidi put the result beyond doubt. That allowed me to take off Modric and Ronaldo, saving them for the next match, and Vidal had a go in midfield. Overall, the second half performance was satisfactory, no better.

1738397235_Screenshot2022-02-10104801.thumb.jpg.f950cca5abb5b1e90821576c15859c95.jpg

                Lewandowski.jpg.c8a44d9570f592a26fb60ee5152d2b8a.jpg              Ronaldo.jpg.63ac76973dc971417d10e217b0b6ff5b.jpg            Matuidi.jpg.e24d4c05f1ce9f36d91f3198ab5ff849.jpg

 

Despite the 3-1 score-line, I can’t be too positive about the outcome. We’re in the FA Cup proper now, but Dale demands we reach the third round. We just struggled to beat opposition a level below us – we’ve never beaten a team in a higher division, yet we’re likely to meet league opposition over the next two round – if we get past the first one. For him, that target is as important as reaching the play-offs. I foresee trouble.

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30 minutes ago, RogerC said:

So strange to see all those names! hehe. Good start in the league.

Hey thanks. Yeah, I really don't know how this will go. With no mentoring, leadership and less than ideal facilities, will they actually develop into the players we know them to be?

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My coaching staff have been educating me about these Italian player roles I’ve never heard of. We agree that Modric and Matuidi are playing very well in their roles, but Fabregas and Muntari – not so much. They’re suggesting we should experiment with a ‘mezzala’ role in midfield. I’m thinking on it. The ideal time would be early next month, when in the space of 3 days we should play and get knocked out of the FA Cup (we’ve drawn Second Division Swindon Town) and that Papa nonsense. Problem there is the chairman will likely fire me on the spot if he thinks I’m not taking both tournaments seriously.

 

Tuesday rolled around and back in the league we were home to Dover Athletic. They’re struggling a bit and my scout implied they’re really no better than Kettering, but I was looking for a proper performance and I put out our best XI to do that. Dover proved better than I’d been led to believe, but we went out with a good attitude, playing some attractive stuff, fighting for the second ball, but for all that we just can’t finish. A sumptuous Kompany free kick was the meat in the sandwich of two Dover first-half goals and I was worried. Although the stattos say we’re the worst at finishing chances in the division, I’m wondering more and more if we need to bring forward our midfield re-thinks to unlock the door.

Again, I delivered a half-time roasting and performances improved, but Dover had an inspired keeper. Having overplayed Modric and Ronaldo, I had to take them off despite them being two of our best players. Looking to the bench, there were no like-for-like replacements, so I sent Matuidi on after my assistant gave him a 30 second tutorial of doing mezzala things, and put left back Guardado on as inverted left winger. It worked, he scored and Rooney bagged a third in time-added – alas it was ruled out for offside. On balance, the 2-2 draw was fair, but we have to start games stronger.

2049419861_Screenshot2022-02-10212209.jpg.35d194b1d86dec6c16b7bbbeb009300c.jpg

                               Kompany.jpg.663779efba98b3c428f853bdb4409bfe.jpg                           Guardado.jpg.4030a415a0481113093898672c3b29a1.jpg

 

Stronger, and maybe a bit differently. We’ll go ahead and try a couple of new roles in the next game – changing the deep-lying playmaker to a mezzula, and the ball-winner to a box-to-box midfielder in the hope that we get more players contributing higher up the field. In the course of chatting about fancy-dan roles, we mutually noted that both our right backs, Vidal and Coke are performing modestly, and that both are really more suited to defensive midfield roles. We’re thinking to try them in inverted wingback roles and teach them to switch the ball to the left flank habitually. It may all to too much too soon, but they’re young – they can learn quickly.

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That next game was away at one of the promotion favourites, Bromley. With Fabregas still out, that mezzula role had to go to Modric but he was exhausted. I had to give him two days off training when I really needed him on the training pitch. I realised I might rue my impulsiveness. We started a bit disjointed – on me, given the amount of changes I’d imposed, but we settled down and actually opened the scoring with a penalty converted by our keeper, Akinfeev. Despite the clean sheet, I could see we were being repeatedly exposed at the back so I call Matuidi over and told him to revert to a ball-winning role. He must have heard ‘ball-breaking’ as within five minutes he’d been sent off. I had to sacrifice my attacking midfielder and bring on Muntari.

The boys followed my instructions to play cautiously and turned the second half into a mostly non-event, but eventually we gave up one chance and Bromley equalised. I hollered to turn on the burners, and soon Messi had burst down the right flank, crossed to Lewandowski on the left, and he restored our lead. Messi hurt himself in creating that goal and had to come off, but we battened down the hatches and weathered the Bromley storm and despite being outdone on xG, came away with a 1-0 and three points!

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                              Akinfeev.jpg.58c1a98fdcd02b19bed1d0293bbcc49c.jpg                         Lewandowski.jpg.1269ffee6e1fd9594da93e02a7b11b7a.jpg

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As we moved into November, our bi-weekly schedule took us to Boreham Wood next, without Fabregas, Messi and Matuidi. This left us short in midfield so I let Vidal play in his preferred ball-winning role and asked Muntari to try his hand at mezzala. Unusually, we raced into a two-goal lead thanks to great anticipatory skills by Ronaldo, but Boreham Wood pulled one back due to one fault that’s resulted in half our conceded goals – the lack of pace in defence. I’ve dropped the D-line already but we can’t sit deep and play a pressing game, so that’s an issue that’s going to be hard to address.

In the second half their defence went awol, affected by the blustery conditions. Ronaldo scored two more – his xG must have been under 0.5 given the quality of his finishing; there are times you can forgive his lack of teamwork, and Rooney added a fifth. I took the opportunity of withdrawing Vidal and dropping Rooney into midfield, and giving an unfit Messi a runout. Unfortunately, I left Ronaldo on to pick up a knock that will keep him out for a week. The final score of 5-2 – our best yet – may have flattered us a little, but at least when we’re knocked out of two cup competitions next week I can look Vince in the eye and insist we are in the play-off spots (just) he demands already.

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                                    Ronaldo.jpg.30451336a499bd4348d727a275264019.jpg                   Rooney.jpg.60bdd750e7f4019db28746ed9b403d5f.jpg

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I could see the combination of intensive training programmes, intensive match tactics and an intensive fixture schedule was seriously straining the boys. Although I’d prepared three days of specific training for the upcoming cup tie, I decided to cancel it all to allow enough rest not only for the next match, but going forward the next few weeks. Privately, it was also a self-admission that we had no chance against the highest-ranked team in the competition – by this point Swindon Town were top of the Second Division – above QPR who’d outclassed us and thumped us 0-3 in pre-season.

Predictably, we went down 0-2 to Swindon Town in the FA Cup First Round. We held them at bay for an hour, but greater experience won through. Disastrously, however, a crunching tackle shattered Luis Suarez’s leg to end his season – a nightmare scenario for a young player.

1903672662_Screenshot2022-02-11010356.jpg.a89bb694281be9a5753c2e7afcf0d7dd.jpg

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Whoever was left standing was in the squad for the midweek Papa John’s match against Third Division high-flyers Leyton Orient. Out of necessity, Vidal is turning out regularly in midfield still. Frankly, in front of a derisory attendance, we were affected by Suarez’s mishap and were not motivated at all, crashing out 1-4, Ronaldo bagging a late consolation penalty.

1732627248_Screenshot2022-02-11012315.jpg.8fe4f8f6af3b7b1676f9c170821b0503.jpg:onmehead:

 

The middle of the week took 4 of our players away on international duty, but the forthcoming game was not called off. We had to soldier on with only 16 squad members, including Fabregas with whom we had to take a big risk. The recruitment department are checking whether Lukas Podolski is available and a free agent to cover Suarez’s injury but we haven’t heard yet.

We despatched lowly Weymouth 2-0 with first half goals from Akinfeev with another penalty, and Rooney. This time it was Ramos who got injured – succumbing to a hamstring strain and is out for six weeks.

weymouth.thumb.jpg.28f13c7d7cc2a00bdb210aa156a9af4e.jpg

 

Goalkeeper Akinfeev is our joint-second highest goalscorer after Ronaldo.  :onmehead:

Edited by phnompenhandy
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It turns our Podolski is back in England, but he signed for Tottenham’s youth side. Dale has signed a Colombian 15 year old kid, informing me our wage budget is way over the limit and I’m expected to manage it. The scouts tell me compared to what we have, the kid is quite fast and a decent finisher.  He’s called Radamel Falcao. He’ll be with us soon.

Our next match was home to Wealdstone who were in a similar predicament to Weymouth. On paper, it should have been a routine game, but the fatigue and injury situation made the outcome far less certain. It was a poor game. Akinfeev missed a penalty, Ronaldo took advantage of a defensive misunderstanding and we drew 1-1. Best forgotten.

In my weekly meeting with our coaches and data wonks we like to assess matches and training sessions with a view to tweaking our tactics and training emphases. We agree that our central defenders are skilful and cool-headed, but get done by pace time and again. We think that in the long-term all can be ball-players and should be trained as such from now on. In matches, we will reluctantly have to drop the defensive line to standard, but set an offside trap. In midfield, Fabregas is definitely a playmaker and can’t adjust to being a mezzala whilst Modric thrives in the role. Matuidi looks as if he can handle that role as well as any other but Muntari is not so versatile and needs a defensive focus.

Secondly, we don’t win enough long through balls or direct passes. We should minimise the disadvantageous diminutive size issues, and maximise the skill superiority by concentrating on a quick, short-passing game. We have seen some lovely multi-player pass-and-move moments over the last couple of months, although we do get stuck passing around outside the box and failing to take shots. I also need to observe how well or badly the midfield duo are at holding and using the ball – are counters occurring because they lose the ball?

Dale participated in the latest one to make an announcement. He’d accepted that there is a risk in training the kids so intensely in order to develop them as much as possible, and that the consequence would realistically be we’d often have to put out weakened line-ups and fall far short of his target of the play-offs. He wants us to rise up the pyramid year-on-year and not spend two or more seasons in a league to give the kids space to develop. He saw the contradictions in his demands and decided that in addition to providing us with an extra striker to cover Suarez’s injury, he’d deliver two more youngsters, AND cover their wages without passing on to me responsibility to bring down the wage budget. Who’d arrive depended not on my requirements, but on who was available, but they’d arrive soon.

By the next day the first newcomer had turned up. He’s a local lad from Leeds, a James Milner. He immediately impressed us on the training ground with his whole-hearted dedication, if not overwhelming skill-set. He could play as a winger on either flank; I don’t see him starting many games, not this year at least, but he’s useful back up.

The next lad, Fredy Guarin arrived a week later – one from the production line in Colombia, a defensive midfielder seemingly in the mould of Artur Vidal. Like half the squad, he’s a non-English speaking Spanish speaker. He has to miss a few training sessions to deal with paperwork – Dale doesn’t tell me exactly how he procures visas and work permits or whatever is needed; to be fair, I don’t need to know and care even less.

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In the meantime, a game of football broke out on the Saturday. It was away to table-topping Aldershot. We conceded yet another early goal to a throughball scything our slow central defence, bur their keeper dropped the ball at the feet of Ronaldo for an equaliser. 1-1 was the final result of what was a drab game, if truth be told, but a point away to the leaders can’t be sniffed at. It leaves us in 5th place, six points behind the team above us but with two games in hand.

More importantly, the central defenders were deeply uncomfortable in their ball-playing roles, as was Messi in an experimental shadow striker role. I need to think about whether to persist with them. Clichy was the recipient of our injury of the week – he did his ankle and is out for a month. Pique joined him on the treatment table a day later.

In no time at all we had a home tie with Woking. Every available fit or semi-fit player was in the matchday squad, including a space on the bench for Milner. He got half an hour and did alright, but it wasn’t enough to prevent our first league defeat. Akinfeev got his customary penalty in the 3rd minute and Cazorla showed better understanding of his shadow striker role and ran the length of the pitch to grab his first goal, but what was left of the defence capitulated and we went down 2-3.

         

 

wealdstone.jpg.3527efc3bd222ca37ace5bf6385a360b.jpg  aldershot.jpg.ec4c020f407d283803e7bba01e42f217.jpgwoking.jpg.84cd1eeacb56ea6417f6793fb73cf348.jpg

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In a meeting with the medical department, our head of sports science had a severe word with me. She pointed out we have the worst injury crisis and smallest squad in the league, and put the blame solely in my court. She insisted that responsibility lay with my high-pressing, high-tempo tactics that took too much out of these immature youths, both on the pitch twice-weekly, and on the training ground. Her argument was that being mostly naturally fit was not enough – they needed a year or two of growing into manhood before they could be put through such intense workloads. I had to accept that at the risk of annoying the chairman by compromising on his desired playing style, the intensity had to be scaled down.

The point was driven home the next day when I selected my team for the fixture against mid-table Altrincham, I had to start Silva up front as Ronaldo and Rooney were exhausted and Falcao was nowhere near match fit yet. We won the game 2-0 with goals from Benzema coming in off the right wing and substitute Ronaldo coming in off the left. For me, more significant than t being only our second victory in seven games, was the nature of the win – the defence was sound and we created plenty of decent chances. As a team, this was as good a performance as I’d seen from them. Had I found a tactical sweet spot? The next game away to new leaders Crawley would be a good test of that.

As we maintained our lead at the top of the league’s injury list with Guarin getting done in an U18s game. The Crawley game was tough, as expected, until they went down to 10 men. After that we controlled the game but only had a Silva header from a Kompany free kick to show for it. Then, in the 94th minute Crawley bagged a scorcher out of nowhere. 1-1 was an unfair scoreline, but I did sense we were making some marginal progress.

                                                                                            

 

 

altrincham.jpg.2749ca3704d1cd5bb1206cf6820950b2.jpg                             crawley.jpg.14c3bd9ba0ad758b4234e8ff4f8f047d.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

             

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December arrived and the first game was home to Dagenham & Redbridge. I felt we were near to where I wanted us to be but were lacking a certain spark. Would it be provided by Falcao on his debut? In fact, he started a little anonymously, but it didn’t matter as suddenly we were playing football, dominating the game, peppering their goal with an inspired keeper and the woodwork keeping us at bay. It was Akinfeev – firstly with his fifth penalty conversion,  and then sweeping up and firing great pass to Rooney, who suggests he might prefer being a shadow striker to an orthodox one. Ronaldo added a third late on to make the result a very comfortable and well-deserved 3-0.

965706477_dagred.jpg.0074c40302ce22615240378d4bf18d4a.jpg

 

I’m implementing something we’ve been trialling on the training ground – down the left flank I’ll have an attacking wingback, attacking mezzala and no so attacking inverted winger. The idea is to overlap, overload, overwhelm and overcoat (it is winter) the left side of the pitch – with the option of passing to Ronaldo on the other flank. Looks good on the tactics board too.

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I’m becoming increasingly aware that with our weaknesses in midfield and right-back, I could maybe achieve a better balance with a 4-3-3, with a defensive midfielder screening the defence, and Ramos at right back. Vidal and Muntari could share the defensive midfielder role. The big problem with that is it would leave us short of cover in central defence and the chairman has made it clear there are no more youths available to bring in this season. Ideally, I’d train the boys in both systems and be flexible enough to switch from one to the other, but where would we find time to train a new formation? No, we’ll have to postpone that until next pre-season and proceed with where we are. What’s more, I do believe that in two or three seasons Vidal and Coke can be moulded into what we call in the trade a “Trent” role, so we have to stick to the long-term plan.

Our focus turns to the next league contest with a team that has no right to even exist, Milton Keynes Dons. We stand in solidarity with Wimbledon and wish them well in their promotion push along with Manchester City from the First Division. The despised MK Dons, however, are lying in third place in our league, two points ahead of us, and are well-known to despise us for our principles. We expect violence.

We put out the strongest (in both senses of the word) side we could, given Clichy and Ramos were still out. We can’t prepare for a match without sustaining another injury – this week’s victim is Lewandowski and yet another ankle whack. There was blood, there was thunder at the MmmKay Stadium – there was also Ronaldo and super-mezzala Modic bagging a brace each to absolutely destroy the imposters 4-0. The performance has taken Ronaldo out for a week, but my gosh it was worth it.

The match three days later against Sutton United necessitated sending out a bunch or fatigued and patched up survivors. I gave the first team a couple of days off training to recuperate, which allowed Coke to nobble himself on a quiet training ground. We put out ten of the eleven who thrashed the Dons, with Benzema replacing a knackered Ronaldo. It was evident the players feel really comfortable with my latest tactical fine-tuning (I still don’t quite  get what a mezzala is, but we’re absolutely bossing the left flank these days), and we won by an even greater margin, a superb 5-0 with Falcao breaking his duck with a brace, and Benzema, Kompany and Rooney chipping in. Equally satisfyingly, we didn’t allow our opponents a single shot on goal. With Crawley and Aldershot both suffering shock defeats, the result took us to the top of the league!

207368165_mkdons.jpg.ff2f3afab8c90ed45b34a402f54a81a1.jpg                     22700158_suttonutd.thumb.jpg.f4c93967a1699647b55ba8d2f4f6212b.jpg

 

And let's enjoy this transitory moment (it lasted three days, upon which Fleetwood replaced us):

 

1758917374_leaguetable.jpg.5ead960f61ab72985124dd8b6032ac89.jpg

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In midweek Silva nobbled himself and Fleetwood replaced us at the top of the league. It was a sweet three days. Just as we were building up momentum, the schedulers gave us a fortnight off from league duties as they bunged an unwanted FA Trophy game in our direction. I suppose it was an excuse to give Guarin a debut, give game time to the lads coming back from injuries and check out the more fringe players. In all, I changed ten of our starting eleven from the last game, this time retaining only Falcao, who appears to be in the mood, and with more minutes I hope can become of first-choice striker, with Rooney being a shadow striker. Tactics-wise, Fabregas has shown he has no capacity to play as a mezzala and sticks with his deep-lying playmaker role. Our opponents were my village in my primary school years, Maldon & Tiptree.

We despatched the team two divisions below us with business-like efficiency, even in second gear. Goals from Falcao (2), Fabregas and a Ramos free kick (their first goals) brought about a 4-1 win. Guarin was understandably off the pace – he kept running for 90 minutes to be fair, but he tended to mistime his tackles and give a lot of fouls away.

The following weekend on Boxing Day we hosted bottom-of-the-table Salford. I chose to play the same side that won in the FA Trophy match due to the schedule. I couldn’t though as our compulsory weekly injury hit in the guise of Coke getting a knee-nack. A wonderful first half hat-trick from Falcao ensured that even our second-string could overwhelm the weakest sides in our league. Marvellous stuff for Christmas, a 3-1 victory.

We’d had much needed breathing space with two weeks free of midweek games. This would be broken by the Christmas schedule giving us two matches in three days, but from the new year we ought to have far fewer midweek games, weather permitting. It makes a huge difference – with more time on the training ground and more opportunity to rest between games, I can see us putting a decent run of form together for the run-in. Since we had that momentary taste of table-toppingness, I’ve got it into my head that Vince’s target of making the play-offs is not enough. I’m keeping that strictly to myself for now though.

244953476_maltip.thumb.jpg.e56ffc4134c4d923fcf4a00287b5463a.jpg                  salford.jpg.4d017d91da06f530dfce6aa69cf429a1.jpg

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And so, without any chance to train, reduced to watching a video compiled by our data wonks, we immediately laid into the next visitors, Newport County. It would of course be our first-choice XI due to my squad management. Well, Clichy was out after taking bad tackle but he wouldn’t have started anyway. Falcao and Vidal had to go again; at least a well-rested Ronaldo was back.

Was it altitude sickness? Was it complacency? It’s hard to explain how after such a streak of red-hot form, we played so poorly. We had the chances – 20 shots on goal, but failed to find the onion bag. A very very disappointing 0-1 loss. I’ll follow one hunch as we go into the new year. Due to the fixtures piling up so fast and having to play unfit players, I’d compensated by reducing the match intensity. In this game I told them to turn on the burners again. It did look like the pressing and tempo was causing players to be caught out of position. I will try to use the same players five days from now with the same roles and duties but without counter-pressing and high tempo. It’ll be better for their health anyway.

After cool reflection with the coaches and data dudes, we are prepared to accept the last result was an anomaly, although we think the tactical adjustments I suggested ought to be tried against Barrow anyway. Overall, we think the shape of the team and the inter-relationships between the players are excellent. One thing we disagreed on is whether the improved results and performances are wholly due to our tactical refinements, or whether through time the kids are simply getting the hand of our instructions and cohering better on the pitch. Or is it as simple as the addition of Falcao (in his first month, he’s won the league young Player of the Month)? It’s probably a combination of all of the above. Order was restored with a narrow 2-1 victory, courtesy of goals from Ramos and Falcao.

newport.jpg.c574315e7caea47acc46281e6b1c231e.jpg                  barrow.jpg.e3b7adce097b7056ca6e59fb0b2b63b6.jpg

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As we close out 2001, here is a reminder of our current tactical set up. It's one that seems to have clicked with the boys at last.

tactics.thumb.jpg.0118a2dda7a3073a1f529d8213e182c4.jpg

 

I must have missed the big news of 2001; it turns out that as we go into 2002 we leave the EU! I’m sure Dale’s got it all covered. He did say something about ‘home grown’ and 3 years and not to worry. All went over my head apart from the ‘don’t worry’ bit.

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The first match of 2002 was home to struggling Maidenhead. Everything came together this time as we battered them 5-1. Akinfeev dispatched another penalty, and Ronaldo, Rooney, Falcao and Clichy chipped in. The latter went off with another twisted ankle on 75 minutes, leaving us to see the game out with ten men.

The following Saturday was FA Trophy time – a Fourth Round away tie against an Aldershot Town side just one place behind us in the league. Nevertheless, I kept faith with the fringe players apart from keeping Falcao up top – they’d demonstrated they could beat teams at the bottom of our league – how about at the top?

No, was the short answer. We went down 0-1. We can concentrate of winning the league.

My response to the defeat was to arrange extra training sessions and send the bulk of the starting line up to face Eastleigh in the next league match. I dropped the worst performers, Coke, Milner and Cazorla, but the rest started. In truth, I was mindful of the midweek clash with Fleetwood, 2nd v 1st and wanted to save my powder.

The physios informed me Lewandowski had a ‘tight thigh’ and should sit the Eastleigh game out. He’s a bit of a shirker in my view and I wouldn’t buy it. He needs to show more resolve and if that means breaking through the pain barrier, so be it.

My faith proved well-founded; with the extra preparation the boys raced into a 3-0 lead in 12 minutes. They relaxed after that and hardly had another shot. Falcao had opened the scoring, captain Akinfeev added a penalty and Lewandowski proved my hunch right by scoring the third. I took him off at half time as I felt I’d made my point and didn’t need to push him. The result took us a point ahead of Fleetwood, pushing them down to second ahead of our showdown at Highbury.

I know the contest with Fleetwood would be our 21st game in a 44-game season, but it still felt like a 6-pointer going a long way to deciding who’d be champions and gain automatic promotion. Modric passed a late fitness test after his virus – he was going to be our attacking mezzala and really take the game to them on their turf. Their gaffer had made it clear he had the same attitude so I elected to go into the game on full intensity, giving no quarter.

Fleetwood defended well and foiled our chances in the first half until late on when Falcao fed Ronaldo to slip the ball past the keeper. There were plenty of thrills in the second half but both defences held firm until Ronaldo got a second late on. After that we managed the game very well to ensure a 2-0 final result. Their manager had made a numpty of himself in the media, we had a 4-point cushion at the top of the table and all was looking very positive.

 

aldershot.jpg.0a549d85a0dbd2cee365a1e2cd3d7114.jpg  eastleigh.jpg.dc4df424f77cefb7a6ca73ba343472b7.jpg  fleetwood.jpg.a95e66aa873afb1c0569d1da88a17400.jpg

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Putting all our premium eggs into the Fleetwood basket necessitated playing the second-string at lowly King’s Lynn. We only just had enough in the tank to take the points – Vidal got the first and Milner a 94th minute winner in a 2-1 victory. There is a clear gulf opening up between the best and the rest – an issue I will have to address, preferably if we can get a bit of a buffer between us and second place.

 

As we sit top of the Vanarama National League at the half-way point of the season, other divisions are into the second half already. Let’s have a gander at the tops: in the Premier League, Liverpool and Man United have pulled away from early challengers such as Newcastle, Leeds and Sunderland. The likes of Michael Owen and Stevie Gerrard are inspiring our boys, showing them where they can be at – with forest Green when they are of equivalent ages. In the first Division it’s Coventry and Man city who’ve opened a gap. In the Second, QPR, Swindon and Colchester are leading the way, and in the Third it’s Bristol Rovers and York City. At the other end of the Third, our local fierce rivals Cheltenham are propping up the table, so if we go up, we may not face them.

In Scotland, Celtic are undefeated and have a 15 point lead over Rangers, In Germany Bayern have the samer margin and in Spain the gap between Real and Barca is 7 points. It’s a different story in Italy where a single points separates Roma, Inter and Milan. Auxerre top Ligue Un, and Club Brugge and PSV are running away with their leagues.

Back to our adventure, three days later, having crossed into February, we travelled to Barnet. I had a little Manager of the Month medal to flash around the team coach. Falcao was looking a bit tired but I planned to squeeze two more games out of him before giving him a rest – the rest of the Starting XI were in fine fettle. Guardado is a little grumpy that he doesn’t have equal status with Clichy since he’s started more games. He finds it hard to accept that is purely down to Clichy’s injury record and when that clears up he’ll be the main starter at leftback. I have to be firm in these matters. Having said that, Guardado starts yet again with Clichy on the bench as his ankle is still a bit delicate. A brace from Ronaldo and a tap-in by Rooney put the polish on a solid 3-0 win. Guardado was poor and I replaced him at half-time with Clichy who went on to prove my point. It’s a challenge moulding these teen prima donnas into a mature egalitarian unit, but he has promised to up his levels of commitment. Clichy has picked up a virus anyway so wont be available for the next two games.

While discussing the risks of viruses spreading through the club, our sports science people alerted me to Vincent Kompany’s horrendous injury record and insisted we’d have to greatly reduce his training intensity as well as the number of matches he played if he was to have a long-term career.

Talking of training intensity, amongst a highly dedicated bunch of lads, on the training ground three stand out as over-and-above the rest: Falcao, Milner and Akinfeev. Even Ronaldo can’t hold a candle to these boys.

Ronaldo despatched Woking with a brace (both courtesy of company free kicks) in a display of consummate efficiency by the team, taking home a 2-0 victory. Fleetwood and Aldershot, lying 2nd and 3rd cancelled each other out to open up a 6 point gap between them and us. With the easing of the fixture congestion and reduction of injuries, the mood is good on and off the pitch. Having said that, the game was followed by another three days later at struggling Yeovil; the second-string was deputed to see off a local rival. Resting Falcao and starting Benzema up top did no harm (he didn’t do any good either) as Cazorla and Milner book-ended a less than feisty near-derby and we ran out with a 2-0 scoreline – yet another clean sheet even with the second-choice boys.

Suarez is walking again – he might be able to commence light training by April. At the time, I promised him he’s be straight back in the first team as soon as he was fit – I don’t think it’s a promise I can keep with Falcao surprising us all. Then again, I’m soon going to start rotating the squad far more to give everyone more first-team experience.

 

 

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Despite uncharacteristic sloppiness at the back, we coasted past Solihull Moors 4-2 with a brace from Milner and a first league goal from the subdued Messi. Kompany scored direct from a free kick whilst also setting up Milner’s first. Kompany’s set pieces are becoming a powerful weapon.

I’ve received notice that Akinfeev and Modric are due to join their national youth squads from the end of March until after the end of the season – 12 league games! I don’t know what tournament that is, but what happens if more are called up? I can’t have all the games postponed. It would be even worse given that Clichy (along with Matuidi) is out for yet another month with injuries sustained in an U18s knock-about. Our monthly accounts show we’re now haemorrhaging money monthly – not surprising after adding more bodies to the squad (and an extra coach). Despite his assurances, I can tell Vince is glowering behind my back and expects me to somehow fix the balance sheet.

That’s beyond my limited powers; what’s isn’t is observing that the hated MK Dons have returned to be our nearest challengers, which gave the lads a little extra motivation in our trip to Dover. And boy, did they go to town on it. Now Messi has a taste of goal, he bagged a first half brace, along with contributions by Modric, Silva and Ronaldo. In the second half the centre backs Ramos and Zapata joined in. Admittedly our task was eased by playing against 9 men for much of the game. 7-1 was our biggest win of the season.

With such a margin of victory we – or should I say I – sunk into a trough of complacency. We assumed we’d see off Bromley without getting out of first gear and we were rightly punished with a 0-2 scoreline. I’ll take that on the chin – a wakeup call.

      

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Edited by phnompenhandy
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Duly chastised, we returned to business as usual with an efficient 3-0 victory over relegation-threatened Weymouth. Falcao, Akinfeev and Rooney supplied the goals. The bulk of the team that let us down against Bromley were given another chance against Boreham Wood. They disappointed again; after an early penalty by Akinfeev, we controlled the game but were flat and finished with a disappointing 1-1 draw. Fortunately, MK Dons lost so we have a 3-point lead, but these lads aren’t doing themselves any favours – I’d planned to give them the bulk of game time in the last dozen matches but maybe I can’t risk that. Muntari added his name to out now four-strong injury list. Like Guardado, Guarin will have to play bi-weekly until others are fit. However, we had one more match against a struggling side before facing more challenging opponents, so they had one more chance to prove themselves.

That opponent was Wealdstone. We won the game 5-3Ronaldo got a brace, Rooney came on for the second game running to pop one in, and Lewandowski and Benzema chipped in with goals and improved performances. At the back, I put the weaknesses down to our injuries, including over-playing Guardado, who’s barely trained for a month as his energies need to be conserved for matches. I think we’ll be fine, bar further injury crises. Speaking of which Messi is out for 6 weeks with knee-nack. Oh, and Clichy is due to return to fitness just in time to be called up by France Under19s. In a very worrying development, the media are reporting Manchester City manager Kevin Keegan is snooping around our squad, and Juventus’ Lippi is interested in Ronaldo. The loyalty and resolve of our boys could be tested sooner than we’d anticipated.

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In the first game after we lost Akinfeev and Modric for the rest of the season, we faced now second-placed Aldershot. This required a big show from the (fit and available) big guns if we were to maintain our position at the top of the table. I hope all the scouts were out in force as in atrocious conditions, with players slipping and sliding, mis-timing tackles all over the pitch, our defenders were blinded by the driving rain and conceded a remarkable four goals in the first half. I had no one on the bench who could change the game and I probably went over the top in terrorising the kids at half time but it made no odds, we fell to our heaviest competitive defeat, a humiliating 2-6 loss with Rooney and Falcao netting pointless goals for us.

We saw out March with a trip to Moss Lane to face Altrincham. Fortunately, we had a week to recuperate although the squad was still too thin to make substantial changes. We did have a recruitment meeting where Dale was up for bringing in a couple of aged loanees, but had enough faith in the squad to believe they would get us over the line. We badly needed a win, both for the points and morale as immediately ahead of us lay a very tricky Easter schedule. With some gentle words and tactical tweaks, we took to the grass and performed like we ought to, playing them off the park in a 5-1 demolition job, with goals shared between Ronaldo, Falcao and Rooney. I can only hope a watching Lippi noted Ronaldo’s tame penalty miss along with his pair of tap-ins. That enabled us to regain pole position in the league, ceded for 3 days to Aldershot, who were distracted by FA Trophy action. We weren’t going to get carried away though – we were aware the next three matches would probably define our season. Talking of which, Akinfeev and Modric have both been unexpectedly knocked out of their Under 19s tournament and will return in time for the next match. It appears I’ll have a nearly complete squad available too, with only Messi and Suarez (who is a couple of weeks away) missing.

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Club captain Igor Akinfeev returned in time for the tie against high-flying Crawley Town, but Modric was exhausted and needed time off. Clichy and Matuidi made long-awaited returns, and Suarez even made the bench. It was an inauspicious return; we were profligate in attack and careless in defence (Akinfeev in particular had a dreadful game) – another collapse in a dreadful 0-3 defeat which dropped us down into third place. Lippi keeps coming back for more despite not seeing Ronaldo have one decent performance.

We’ve lost three and drawn one of our last four home games, yet we keep winning on the road. And so it was that we went down to Dagenham & Redbridge and beat them 2-0. Suarez got a run out but it was our international superstars who scored – Akinfeev with his penalty and Modric back on the score sheet.

That brought us to the game we were waiting for – a home tie against the filth, MK Dons. This was a game we just had to win and the lads were proper fired up. Dons were top, a point ahead of us with Aldershot on equal points with them. We had to win – well, we couldn’t afford to lose. We have to do it without a left wing – with Messi out, Silva twanged a calf and Lewandowski is ruled out for over a month with a hernia. Ronaldo would have to do the noble thing and shift over, along with Rooney taking the right flank. It was a tight contest but this time we took our chances and our opponents didn’t; as a result with an inferior xG we ran out 3-0 winners with goals from Falcao and Ronaldo, who wasn’t at all fazed by coming in from the wrong side (Rooney didn’t enjoy himself though). With Aldershot drawing, not only did the victory take us back to the top, but it guaranteed us a play-off spot, the chairman’s original target.

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April also brought a crop of new recruits. The scrapings from around the Bristol area were never going to amount to anything, but Dale added eight faces to what would now be our Under 18s squad – he scoured the globe (on his laptop) to bring us these 14 and 15 year olds he insisted had the world at their feet. He said he understood if they might be light years behind the original squad in terms of development but that I should do what I could and anyway he’d be covering the wage increases. By the time I’d pointed out we’d need an Under 18s staff team he’d walked away, leaving me with the Head of Youth to introduce myself to … Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Argentinian defender Ezequiel Garay, Spanish right wingback Antonio Barragan, German and Belgian midfielders Sami Khedira and Mousa Dembele, a Hungarian – I couldn’t catch how to say his name of where he plays – it’s Balazs Dzsudzsak (‘Sudzi’ I called him – I could tell from his expression if he was offended or not). And finally a Uruguayan striker named Edinson Cavani and a face I knew – Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen who’s spent a couple of days with us in pre-season before declining to join us. He’d had a change of heart; it seems Marcelo Lippi and Kevin Keegan weren’t the only people outside of Nailsea tracking our progress.

It would be scandalous to win the Dons match then not win at doomed Salford, so I ensured there’d be no complacency this time, although with a three-day gap I couldn’t guarantee fit bodies and had to put three of the new kids on the bench. In a contest of men against boys, the boys were in no mood to show mercy. We thrashed them in another 7-1 display. Falcao bagged a remarkable four goals, and they were added to by Benzema, Milner and Silva. ‘Sudzi’ even got a short run-out.

Another quick turn-around and we travelled to Wales to face Newport, semi-local rivals. I had to leave a lot of tired bodies behind and gave debuts to Barragan and Cavani, with a not-yet fit Suarez on the bench. With a weakened team, we just about got the edge on a dull game with Ronaldo scoring in a 1-0 win. That goal happens to be out 100th in the league, a club record.

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We had a whole week to recover after that match, and indeed the last six games of the season are spread pretty much a week apart. I think that serves us well. Home to Fleetwood appears to be the only really challenging game; the other five matches are against mid-table or struggling sides so our main enemy will be complacency.

Messi was able to enter the fray – for 45 minutes anyway, as we hosted Sutton United. With it being our strongest line-up, we comfortably despatched them courtesy of a Ronaldo hat-trick, moving him to the top of the league goal-scoring charts with 30. Akinfeev also tops the clean sheets table with 15 (in addition to his ten goals). Aldershot drew their third game in a row, effectively leaving the league a two-horse race between us and The Dons.

May Day swung around and the chairman, after sanctioning a vast backroom staff army – all doing a sterling job – complained about losing a six-figure sum last month and how this is unsustainable. He’s not quite the astute businessman I thought he was – or perhaps like so many other genius businessmen, he leaves his brain indoors when he takes over a football club. Anyway, I just hope in the close season he doesn’t insist on selling off any of our boys. I mean, in the long term, this experiment is going to make him so rich if he just holds his nerve. Any doubts he had were placated anyway when both me and Falcao picked up monthly gongs.

Next week we hosted Barrow. The game was a walk in the park – they never got out of their own half and our boys were silky smooth for 90 minutes. A 6-0 scoreline with braces from Ronaldo and Messi and further goals from Falcao and Kompany was not flattering. It’s a pity the season is drawing to a close as I feel we’re unstoppable at the moment. I could probably put out the same XI every week and achieve similar scores, but I really want to give the new kids a couple of run-outs. The problem is MK Dons keep winning and are still breathing down our necks, just two points behind.

With the next game against lowly Maidenhead, I did put 4 of the fit newbies on the bench, and started Kasper Schmeichel in goal as his adoring father, Aston Villa keeper Peter, looked on. The dependable Ronaldo and Falcao delivered us a 2-0 victory. Maidenhead only had two shots on target but Schmeichel dealt with them very well. Draw specialists Aldershot rocked up at the Stadium MmmKay and took two points off the enemy, leaving us with a four-point margin. Brilliant.

The media has decided Ronaldo will be off to Wimbledon. No he damn well won’t – he can do far better for himself than play second fiddle to Neal Ardley or Jobi McAnuff, but hopefully he’ll understand he won’t develop anywhere better than right here, nailed in the first team and breaking records.

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I wasn’t going to dilute the team when Fleetwood came to Nailsea; the strongest side was sent out. It’s just as well since Fleetwood put up a strong fight, assisted by Muntari getting himself stupidly sent off on half time, reacting to a nasty kick which has put him out of the next game anyway. We squeezed past 2-1 with goals from Messi and Ronaldo. With two games to go and an effective four-point margin given superior goal difference, two points would seal us the title.

Six of our fresh 14 and 15-year olds started at Eastleigh in the penultimate game, with plenty of experience on the bench should any fail us. Marshalled by Ramos, they put in a solid display although they were too timid to take risks given the potential outcome of the match. Milner scored in a 1-1 draw, taking us to 100 points and needing one more to secure the title.

Home to King’s Lynn and needing a point, I brought Ronaldo, Messi, Modric, Falcao and Rooney back into the starting line-up whilst retaining Schmeichel, Barragan, Vertonghen and Khedira – a mixture of youth and youthful experience. Well, that was the plan until Schmeichel, Rooney and Clichy (yet again) got injured in training for the game. Never mind, we have strength in depth these days – except at left back. We were fine.

Two early goals from Ronaldo put the game to bed. The rest was an 80-minute procession, a little unprofessional but the kids needed their moment. 2-0 and the Vanarama National League title was ours!

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End of 2001/02 season reflection

Thanks to Dale for his vision and investment.

Thanks to all backroom staff for their high standards and commitment.

Thanks to all the lads for buying into the vision and working so hard.

Turning points – we got off to an average start, not surprising given we were all strangers to one another. However, a key development was taking the boys to a children’s hospice in Bristol at Christmas, and from then on weekly – it did so much to show the lads the bigger picture and bond them into a tight group of super-nice kids. Getting the data wonks fully involved with match previews and reviews made a big difference in accelerating the player’s familiarity with our tactics and cohering on the pitch. Having said that, we’ve isolated a common problem in that half our goals conceded come from through balls splitting the two central defenders who can lack pace against many strikers – having a defensive midfielder of some description sitting in front of the defence maybe in a 4-3-3 or a diamond might plug that gap but it would have adverse knock-on effects. We’re going to have to address that issue in the close season or pre-season.

Records:

The best players this season: 1. Ronaldo                2. Kompany         3. (latecomer) Falcao

Most progress (according to our performance analysts) 1. Ramos  2. Cazorla  3. Zapata/Milner

Made the least progress according to coaches: 1. Suarez (broken leg)  2. Coke 3. Matuidi/Lewan’ski

Least progress according to data:  1. Lewandowski  2. Guarin (joined late)  3. Benzema/Suarez/Neuer

The backroom boys are particularly disappointed with Coke – they don’t think he’s going to make the grade. But they shocked me with the insight that Vincent Kompany might make a damn fine inverted wingback and we should train him in that position when the lads return from their holidays. That could only work if we fast-track Vertonghen into the first team squad, something our U18s manager feels is possible.

Injury concerns: 1. Suarez             2. Clichy               3. Messi

I’m concerned that we may invest so much time in Clichy and he turns out to be perma-crocked. Guardado is our only back up and he’s merely adequate.

League form: Pl 44 W 32 D 7 L5  Goals for 116  Goals Against 41 GD +75 Pts 103

Cups: let’s not go there

#1 shirt sold: Ronaldo 7

Best XI: Akinfeev, Guardado, Ramos, Kompany, Vidal, Muntari, Modric,

               Messi, Cazorla, Ronaldo, Falcao

Awards: Ronaldo – basically everything. 38 goals (36 in league)

Average Attendance:  2,820

 

 

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