In the beginning there was a small town in The Pyrenees. And God saw it and said “there is no way such a tin pot Lego village can support a National league football team.” But thanks to their all navy strip that sports a white flash across the shirt I found myself manager of Luzenac Ariège Pyrénées, or LAP, as I shall now refer to them. So I chose my team based on how nice their strip is. Turns out there are worse ways to do it, eh Shrew?
However, before we get too carried away with the footballing assets at my disposal and my sybaritic facilities, let us turn to Wikipedia for more on the club:
“US Luzenac (French: Union Sportive de Luzenac) is a French football club based in the little town of Luzenac (650 inhabitants) (Ariège). It was founded in 1936. They play at the Stade Paul Fédou, which has a capacity of 1,000. The colours of the club are red and blue.
For the 2009/10 season the club plays in the Championnat National.”
And that, ladies and gentleman, is all it says, other than claiming my journeyman centre forward, Ande Dona Ndoh, is a notable player and that our honours include three victories in the Midi-Pyrénées DH championship, whatever the hell that is.
Still, as I say, it could be worse.
Those of you who follow Shrew on Twitter will know that he’s been touching himself repeatedly on the quality of my keeper and over the weeks since I’ve noticed a certain stiffening myself whenever I witness another fabulous save. Quentin Westberg – or “my international quality goalkeeper” as I refer to him – is a class apart.
Other than Westberg the squad is reasonably balanced, with the biggest weakness in midfield and much of my wage budget spunked on Idriss Ech-Chergui (now called “the Algerian” after a quite catastrophic first attempt to pronounce his name) and thirty-five year-old midfielder Nicolas Dieuze, who I’m phasing out of first team action and has an impressive three relegations in a row on his CV for assorted clubs from 2009-11.
Other key players include captain and chief scout (phenomenal division of labour by the previous manager with that one) Sebastien Mignotte, who is a very old rock in my defence, and target man Khalid Boutaib, who has become more integral to the way I play as the season has progressed.
One unusual – and rather unsettling – aspect of the squad was that every single player was on a one-year contract when I arrived. Some had the option to extend for a further year, which I’ve mostly taken, and I’ve been able to renew everyone else’s contract with the exception of the Algerian, although I’m hopeful I can come to some sort of arrangement with him in the summer.
Bizarrely I did have a back-up centre half on loan who was hovering £1600 a week from my wage budget so he was booted out very quickly. I was also given a four star new gen who looked quite good until you realised that he was a trequartista with one for finishing. I was retraining him as a full-back when Havre paid me a welcome £13k from him.
In short, these are hardly fit for this level of football, never mind for anything better. The finances are fairly shot as well, with the club losing approximately £1m a year. It’s not as if I can do terribly much about that, however, as annual wages only come to £1.3m. Obviously I’m going to trim that figure in the summer but at the moment we’re looking a promotion or bust scenario in the next few years. Incredibly we take in more from grants and sponsorship then we do from gate receipts.
The LeagueThe French National is an eighteen team league with four going down and three going up. Our media prediction of twelfth is about right: we’ve a competent – if rather old – squad. The league does have a couple of “glamour” clubs in it: AFC Ajaccio and Red Star FC, while I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers away by telling you that the recently reformed RC Strasbourg have been a complete shambles.
I booted out nine people who were clearly in the wrong profession as even at this level they wouldn’t be able to contribute to the team. In came four players on amateur contracts, two of which have since left because they weren’t ready for first team football and were being silly about it.
However, twenty year-old Jean Proenca has had some impact on the team, making sixteen appearances in a variety of midfield roles. That said, he’s more of a shirt-filler at the moment than a player of use and will do well to be at the club next season.
I did sign one player on a contract, the quite underwhelming Dieudonne Bikiyoi, as back-up centre back. In fairness to him he’s had to fill in at full back on a few occasions and that’s not really his natural position but with tackling of just nine he’s been a liability more often than not.
So, how do I get this average, yet not utterly desperate, crew to line up? I created two tactics at the start of the season, although I’m almost always playing an attacking 4-3-3 these days. The idea is to get the full-backs to provide all the width (I’ve told them to get forward, cross and stay wide as much as possible) and overload the opponent’s centre-backs with my strikers.
As you would expect it’s done quite well for me in an attacking sense, racking up 40 goals in 24 matches. We’re also not forced to rely on any one player to score, although the midfielders have weighed in with a pathetic three goals between them. That said, the plan is to strengthen this area in the summer so I can risk sending them forward more often and hopefully pick up a few extra goals that way.
The strikers have delivered, however, and although I’ve switched between using either a target man and deep-lying forward between two advanced forwards, the former option has been much more successful for me.
The premise behind it is very simple: get my target man to drop deep so that he drags his marker out of position and creates a channel for one of the advanced forwards to move into. He then flicks the ball into that space, or, if he’s been left alone, feeds the ball to an advancing full back who can then swing it into the box with the two advanced forwards being joined by the returning target man. This being FM, it doesn’t always pan out exactly like that, but it’s a pretty simple tactic and works regularly enough.
Defensively we obviously have problems as 34 conceded in 24 would suggest, especially with such a talented keeper as I have. Ideally I would like my wider forwards to hassle the opposition’s defence constantly, but unfortunately the game doesn’t give me the opportunity to make that kind of instruction. We have improved since I made my two wider midfielders ball-winners, rather than just typical central midfielders but the lack of numbers does hurt us at times.
Still, at least it’s entertaining and with ten games to go we have an encouraging run-in and are six points better off than the team occupying our media predicted position. I would certainly have taken this situation at the start of the season.
Starting with the low points, the 5-1 defeat to Colmar was pretty terrible, and came off the back of two defeats and a draw after just five games. At the time I wondered whether I would be writing this update from the FM dole queue, but since then Colmar have proved they are a pretty decent side at this level. The French Cup defeat to non-league Calais was also disappointing, and although they were superb on the day victory would have given us a home tie against Bordeaux. An opportunity missed.
However, the French Cup did give us the opportunity to keep the morale up in the testing early months, the highlight of which was the 3-2 victory over Paris FC. Again we hadn’t won in three (including defeat to comedy side Colomiers, managed by Man Utd legend William Prunier) and were trailing 2-0 at half-time. We rallied superbly and Khalid Boutaib’s ninety-third minute winner set us on a run where we picked up five wins in six games.
The match against Shrew was special, but I’ll let him detail it as the end result was a tactical victory for him, his star striker’s first goal more national team standard than National League level.
More recently we scored another injury time winner at Vannes, courtesy of our headless chicken centre back Issa Makalou, and have won our last three.
The fact we are twelve points clear of relegation with ten games to go means we can start to plan for next season. Although we’re
actually only eight shy of the promotion places I suspect that will be a step too far and so the focus needs to be on finding a way to challenge for a place in Ligue 2 in the 2015/16.
Obviously much of the deadwood is leaving the squad, and I’m excited about the only Bosman I’ve made so far – the talented Hicham M’Laab. As he’s a left winger I’m going to build a tactic that suits his strengths and I would imagine that will either be a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-2-1, depending on who else I can recruit and if the Algerian stays. However, as I don’t currently have a right winger worthy of the name – and if I can’t persuade one to sign for me, I might be getting all creative with player positioning.
The beauty of being locked in mid-table obscurity for the next ten games is that I really can experiment, and so while results might suffer in the short term I’m hopeful that this means I can have a finely-tuned tactic ready to roll-out at the start of the new season.
The other big decision I need to make is about my keeper. He’s an absolute colossus for us but could fetch up to £1m if sold. His contract expires in twelve months and if I can’t get him to renew this summer then cashing in now is probably the sensible (boo!) option. If I do the club will be financially steadier but he’s likely to be the difference between hopefully challenging for promotion and another year in mid-table.
Decisions, decisions. The joy of FM!