In my last update, I argued that the only thing that could save us from a financial disaster was promotion. Well I’ve now finished the season… so are we on the brink of receivership or have we started on the long road to the big time?
Well the title of this article will probably give you some clue as to how an epic season has ended for little Feralpi. Perhaps the directors were actually seeing into the club’s future when they decided to hamstring me with the enormous debt of paying for the new stadium? Perhaps they saw the potential is such an obviously talented young manager? Or perhaps they just got lucky…
In this update, I’ll review how exactly we managed to pull off such an unlikely feat including a look at the heroes who have got us to Serie B and a case-study of why the tactic(s) worked. I’ll also have a quick look ahead to next season and predict exactly what I’m going to need to do in the transfer market if we’re to have any hope of surviving the massive step up in quality.
First of all, the scary stuff. Our debt now sits at a pant-wettingly worrisome £3,000,000. That’s our bank balance debt, this doesn’t include the £7.5m which we still owe for the quite unnecessary new stadium. Matters are not helped by the move to the new stadium being delayed by 4 months due to “unforeseen circumstances”. This really hurts us as I don’t think we’ll be able to sell season tickets for the new place, therefore reducing our potential pre-season income.
With the club still only valued at £1m, we are in an incredibly precarious financial position, something which the board recognised during the course of the season by reducing my wage budget even further – now to a paltry £20k per week. As we were above this by some £3k, it had two direct effects:
1. I couldn’t commit to any Bosman signings. This is fine, as I didn’t want to sign any Serie C class players only to discover I needed extra quality once they actually joined the club and
2. much more damaging to the club, I couldn’t commit some key players within my squad to longer contracts. As such, Alberto Machiori will be leaving for free in the summer, leaving a gaping hole in my defence that I need to fill.
One nice knock-on effect of our pauper status is that it massages my ego nicely to know that we’ve gained promotion against all the financial odds. Taking a look at the annual salary table to the right, you’ll see us third from the bottom , spending less than a third of Padova who finished in 4th and then failed to qualify from the playoffs.
I know it’s not nice to gloat but it does massage your ego nicely to see that table 😀
Moving on and back to the finances, you will not read about any superb new youth players at Feralpi in this update. Our youth recruitment returned to the level I expected this year with not one product being given a new contract.
Again, I’m desperate to improve the facilities but finances dictate that this simply isn’t possible at this time, nor will it be a feasible investment for many a-season.
I am slightly worried that we are about to be the subject of a takeover, with the chairman’s status having changed to “enjoying life at the club”. This usually means a takeover within the next year or so and I’ll just have to pray that no ambitious sugar daddy decides to turn my project into a money-fuelled borefest.
We can do it without the money, thanks very much, as this proves:
I’m happy that Cremonese came up through the playoffs. They lost out last year despite leading for long periods and capitulated similarly this term. Besides, I’m pretty confident that I can beat them next season and we’ll need all the points we can get!
As unlikely as our promotion seemed at the start of the season, winning the title was almost unthinkable even with 10 games to go. We were down in 5th and Cremonese, who had lead the league from week 2, were soaring away at the top – some 10 points clear of second. All of a sudden, things started to fall apart for the leaders, though, as they embarked on a streak of 6 games where they took just a single point. Feralpi, on the other hand, had timed our charge to perfection:
1 loss, 1 draw and 9 wins from our last 11 games to take the title on goal difference. You see, sometimes I love this game!
Key to our late season run was the form of two loan signings, one who joined in January and one who forced himself into the team after impressive form in January.
Angelo Piacenza, a loan signing from Inter, was originally intended to be back-up for both midfield positions and behind Magliano in the pecking order for the box-to-box role. However, after a hat-trick hero performance away to Mantova, I just couldn’t drop him.
He ended the season with 7 goals and 3 assists from 9 league starts and 8 sub appearances prompting me to secure his permanent signing on a Bosman as soon as the season was over and some funds were freed up. With him and Magliano both excellent prospects and performing well in Serie C1A then I’m more than happy with my current starters for the box-to-box roles.
The second important player after new year was an unexpected loan signing as we managed to bring in a player that I’d actually heard of! Stefano Okaka wasn’t getting any games at Parma and with Sbordone, my young signing of the summer, hampered by endless injuries, bringing him in on a free loan was a simple choice. 6 goals in 12 games later, we were up.
Similar to Piacenza, Okaka’s contract at Parma is now up but I can’t afford the exorbitant wages that he wants so a permanent move is highly unlikely.
It’s hard to pick out other key players, although Francesco Lisi should again get a mention for his 12 goals and 11 assists from left wing. It was, though, a true team effort. Lisi ended up as our leading goalscorer with no other player scoring more than 8. Of course, it helped that no fewer that 8 players scored 5 or more goals whilst our defensive record was exemplary.
Conceding just 20 goals in a league season is a cracking effort for a team of our size; and key to our defensive strength was the performance of loan ‘keeper Felice Bonetti.
I love a tall ‘keeper and at 6’8” you don’t get many taller than Bonetti. He also has the reflexes, positioning and concentration to go with it. At 20, he is only going to get better and, just like Piacenza, I’ve snapped him up on a free at the end of the season.
11 clean sheets in 20 league games for a 19 year old is ludicrous and he only missed out on the other 12 games because I was trying to give game time a non-loan player – Frenchman Teddy Bahlouli. Teddy, however, was a twat and decided to throw a massive strop when I dropped him for 2 consecutive games. No problem, Teddy. Off you go to Strasbourg for £180k of pure profit, nicely helping to keep the board off my back whilst I dispense with an unwanted influence.
So I’ve given some high-level generic terms for why the tactic worked and we got promoted: strong defence, couple of key signings, etc. However, there’s no real detail so I decided to look at one particular game and highlight the reason why the tactic did (or did not) work in this particular game. Rather than simply choose one myself and have you all think that I picked one which best suits my agenda, I had the choice randomly decided on Twitter.
As you can see from this tweet, the game chosen was “number 2”, i.e. the second game of the season. Therefore, the case study game will be…
Feralpi Salò 3 – 0 Lummezane
I’m just happy that the random choice ended up being a win as they’re so much nicer to review 🙂
So as you can see, we lined up in our now usual strikerless formation whilst Lummezane, who would go on to finish bottom at be relegated, favoured a narrow 4-2-3-1. Before I look into how the game panned out, have a look at the match stats:
So everything I say here should be tempered by the fact that we still required some luck to win this game, with Lummezane failing to capitalise on 1 clear cut chance and 3 half chances.
It should also be noted, as I’m no doubt you all have, that we kept only 37% of possession at home to the bottom of the table side. Frankly, I don’t care. This is part of the tactic. It’s the quality of our possession and, more pertinently, the quality of the chances that we create which matters. Not the quantity of either.
It will come as no great surprise that, given the starting formations, I was keen to exploit the flanks. With Lummezane packing the middle in advanced positions, I was certain that their fullbacks would be pushing on to provide the width, something which is borne out by a quick look at their passing map – notice the number of “2”s and “3”s high up the park.
Much more interesting from the passing map is the location of the majority of their passes, within 10 yards of halfway – i.e. where they can’t hurt us.
Their top pass makers were their two centre halves with 110 (98 completed) and 93 (77). Their entire team made only one “key pass”, splitting our defence, in the entire game whereas my AMC made 4 on his own.
What all of this is indicative of is that I am quite happy for the opposition to have the ball in areas that really can’t hurt us. Whilst they keep the ball deep, we have all 11 men behind the ball organised into a reasonably solid defensive shape, ready to close down aggressively when the ball is played into a more dangerous position.
Here is a fine example from the game as Lummezane keep passing amongst themselves, eventually being forced to play it back to their ‘keeper and as soon as it comes anywhere near our defensive third we react to intercept.
Of course, on this occasion my centre half batters it 80 yards back to their ‘keeper but then we are a Serie C team so it’s not always going to be perfect!
You may notice in the video, at around 0:15, that Lummezane have a chance to spread it to their right flank where their fullback would have 10 yards of space before being closed down by my fullback (or 0:22 on the opposite flank). This is a problem that I face against narrow formations and one which I have plans to overcome. What I will say, though, is that you should also notice the advanced positions of our wingers / inside forwards who are already goalside of their natural markers – those advanced fullbacks – and a quick turnover and pass out wide would spell trouble for the visiting team.
So defensively we’ve done fairly well. Of Lummezane’s 3 half chances, 2 were headers direct from corners which has been a weakness of ours over the season. The other half chance and the clear cut chance came from crosses where they managed to create an overlap against on one of my fullbacks, something I nullified later in the game by asking my inside forwards to man-mark the corresponding LB / RB (I was already 2-0 up so didn’t need to take any more chances).
But what about going the other way? It’s all well and good maintaining a strong defensive shape but if I don’t threaten the opposition at all then they’ll eventually break through and I’ll lose the vast majority of my games.
The first thing you’ll probably notice is that there are a lot more “reds” than our opposition. We take chances with our passes as we look to break the defensive line quickly whilst they are disorganised and/or under-manned. It’s a key facet of the counter attacking game and I’m happy enough with the completion rates of all but our centre halves who, at 60% and 50% respectively, are giving the ball away too much – a legacy of the poor standard of player at this level.
We’ve also used the wide areas effectively in this game, taking advantage of the space when their fullbacks are advanced and our 2v1 when they retreat back to a defensive position. Our own fullbacks are asked to bomb forward when in possession, intending to overlap the inside forward who is cutting inside and vacating the space out wide.
Despite the focus down the flanks, though, we never overlook the primary axis of the team – the passing connection between DMC and AMC. These two players are absolutely vital to how we work offensively.
When we have the ball, the DMC, assigned as a DLP(D), is asked to recycle the ball from flank to flank, stay deep and always offer an outball for our advanced players whilst staying deep to protect the two centre backs. Although his through balls slider is set to “often”, this is tempered somewhat by his low mentality and neutral creative freedom and passing slider that he tends to only play through balls when they are definitely “on” and is certainly more conservative than the trequarista.
In this game, Grammacia attempted more passes than anyone else in our side and made 4 “key passes”, one which directly lead to a goal and one which “assisted the assist”. His performance is vital. As a trequarista, he is set as the team’s primary playmaker, therefore when we turn the ball over the players look to get the ball to him as a priority over other passes. This means that we get the ball into advanced areas quickly – ideal for counter attacking.
His creative freedom and license to roam from position, along with his playmaker assignment, mean that he tends to come short for the ball, dragging other players out of position and helping out across the pitch – as seen in the passing map.
Then, when he has the ball, his primary role is to play the killer pass for others to run on to. And, as you can see here with this pass of sheer beauty, he does that rather well:
Again, we’ve limited them to passing it at the back then capitalise on the eventual error. The role of the inside forward is also perfectly encapsulated here as he comes inside off the flank to collect the through ball and finish.
Of course, you need to have the right players in the right places to maximise your ability to play in this manner but that’s a subject for another day when I haven’t already written two and a half thousand words and you all have some attention span left. However, that should give you a brief insight into how the tactic works (on occasion).
Will it still work in Serie B though? We could afford to allow our opposition to have a lot of the ball in Serie C because they weren’t very good and couldn’t do a great deal with it. We simply had to wait for the mistake then take the ball off them. These mistakes are going to be rarer after promotion. It’s a question that is giving me some thought but, for now, I’m going to stick with the counter attacking philosophy as we try to battle against relegation.
With 7 loanees leaving the club during the summer and a further 9 out of contract players also on their way out of the door, we’re really down to the bare bones. I’ve currently got a squad of just 26 players – including the youth team. We’re in desperate need of not only numbers but also quality. So what do the board give me to work with?
To make matter worse, we can no longer rely on free loans as we’re now seen as a big enough club to pay our own way and the likes of Milan and Inter are all asking for us to at least meet 50% of the loanees wages, usually 100%. I simply can’t afford this.
In fact, I can’t afford anything. Players who have been released from Serie C clubs are too expensive, players who were released from Serie B clubs don’t want to join us and players released from Serie A just laugh at us.
Which means that I may have to sell one of my few sellable players – the potentially excellent Filippo Adriano Gramaccia. He’s getting better, there’s no doubt about that, but he flattered to deceive a little last year. Occasionally, as in the game above, he did something brilliant but he only claimed 4 assists and 5 goals over the entire season.
There are any number of clubs interested in him and a big bid, anything north of a million, would probably be too much for the board to resist. Unfortunately, we’d only get 10% of the transfer fee to spend but a little is better than nothing and may allow me to pay for one or two loan fees.
With the remainders of last season’s squad, plus the Bosman signings of Bonetti and Piacenza, we were adequately covered in goal and central midfield but were critically short in various positions: not least centre half and right wing. I would also have liked to strengthen the fullbacks but with the finances as they are I really had to prioritise so Bandini and Desole, who are ok will have to suffice for now.
At centre half, on the other hand, we were left with just one recognised natural centreback – young Luca Plebani who did fairly well at Serie C but is really just an adequate all rounder. So far, I’ve only been able to bring in one other centre half – free transfer Francesco Cernuto.
As you can see, he’s hardly top class and I’m really worried about our defence. I am in desperate need of at least one other centre back and preferably a first teamer. I expect to do a LOT of defending this year and I simply do not think that a centre half pairing of Cernuto and Plebani is going to do us any favours.
Moving into midfield, I picked up Giacomo Zappacosta, a 30 year old DM, to challenge Gerbo for the deep-lying playmaker position whilst I foresee Magliano and Piacenza being first choice for the box-to-box roles. Further forward, I plan to use Gramaccia as the starting trequarista and stalwart Lisi on the left but needed an option for the right flank.
I was so very close to bringing in Luciano Bruzzi, top scorer in last season’s Serie C1A, who would have been perfect for the role but I couldn’t quite afford his wages and Fiorentina eventually snapped him up before immediately relegating him to the reserves.
Therefore, I was left scouring the free transfers again and eventually opted for Gianmarco Nuccetelli.
I like his pace, flair and finishing ability whilst his dribbling could do with some work so I will be concentrating on improving this, his passing and his technique through targetted training. Again, he isn’t exactly top notch but he’s probably the best that I could hope for.
With both Luccutelli and Lisi being attacking options with little defensive ability, I am currently scouring for a more defensive option for the wings – someone with good work rate, teamwork and stamina. Again, as I foresee a lot of defending, I would like to have a Park Ji-Sung / Quinton Fortune / Clayton Blackmore option – i.e. a spoiler that I can use if the opposition has a particularly dangerous fullback or I simply want to try and close games out late on. My options, though, are massively limited so whether I find a suitable candidate is yet to be seen.
With our squad still so painfully small, we are still in desperate need of cash. Rather than player sales, though, I’m keen to try and utilise the co-ownership deals available in Italy. I’ve already “sold” a 50% stake in Giulio Magliano, our highly promising box-to-box midfielder, to Sampdoria for £425k. That is an incredibly welcome income whilst we will still be able to play Magliano for at least a year. If we can sell similar stakes in other players then I’ll be delighted.
As it is, our finances still make nasty reading:
There are, however, a couple of rays of light hidden in there. Our sponsorship income has increased from £1m to £1.2m; whilst we’ve more than quadrupled our season ticket income from £22k to £92k. If our match day income and gate receipts show similar improvements then we’ll take in an additional £1m over the season.
As our wages are actually lower than last season, this may go some way to clearing our debt… but I reckon that’s wishful thinking.
And so might be any hope of staying up. Our team is, quite frankly, awful for this level. We’ll be facing teams like Bologna, Lazio, Livorno and Pescara this season – all of whom are just much, much better than us. The media predict that we’ll end up dead last and my only ambition this season is to finish within 4 points of 18th (strange system in Serie B but this will guarantee our survival). Based on previous seasons, we’ll need 50 points from the 42 games available to survive which is much higher than I was expecting or think we are capable of achieving.
I still feel like we need signings. I have little faith in our defence whilst I can’t see a player in the squad that will get into double figures for goals scored this year. A team who can’t defend and can’t score is only going one way…
It proves to be a difficult season as I aim to avoid my first relegation ever in Football Manager.
As ever, and particularly this time due to the length of the article, thanks for reading and let me know if you have any comments or questions.