Following on from our successful trip to Euro 2016, our third season with club and country has been a stark contrast between unexpected success with the club side and massive disappointment at international level.
I’m not too disappointed by our struggles with Austria as it shows that there’s still plenty of work to do, as I did wonder if our quarter final showing at Euro 2016 was a sign that we’d find things too easy.
With Red Bull Salzburg continuing to provide stiff competition domestically, there still seems to be plenty of longevity in this save yet. Hopefully the rest of the league will catch up at some point but this season it would take something really special to beat our rivals from Salzburg.
If you’ve been following this series then you’ll know that we had some success in the first two seasons with a possession-hungry 4-1-4-1 but you’ll also know that I was constantly frustrated by the striker and a complete inability to decide what to do with him.
These frustrations were compounded when a Dominik Starkl, previously our only reliable striker, lost form badly through September and October of season 3. Coupled with the usual overdone impact of “continental hangovers” in FM, a series of bad results saw us trail Red Bull Salzburg by 10 points at the end of November.
I’m sure we trailed by 12 shortly after this but I don’t have a screenshot. Either way, the league looked beyond us and although we’d qualified for the groups of the Champions League, thereby earning ourselves masses of cash, we managed to make little impact on the big stage.
We were actually very unlucky in Munich where an injury time Lewandowski goal disappointed us and we managed to take the lead in the return game. My aim was to finish 3rd and drop into the Europa where we’d done so well last season, sadly that wasn’t to be and by early December we were left with just the ÖFB Cup as a realistic chance of success.
With no international tournament in the summer, it seemed like a good opportunity to experiment tactically and come up with a alternative set-up that would allow me to actually understand why the striker does or does not work. I was also desperately missing the number 10’s that I love so much and so came up with this:
I always had the national team at the back of my mind when creating this as I don’t want to produce players at Rapid who are completely unsuited to what I’m trying to do with Austria. I actually see the 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 as complimentary tactics which I can use together as “a set”.
Ignoring the tactic’s mentality, the 4-2-3-1 “Pocketmeister” is actually the more attacking setup with 4 players in advanced positions and that high tempo. It’s less about retaining possession and more about getting the ball forward quickly, using the #10 sitting in “the pocket” and playing the passes for the inside forward and striker to score the majority of the goals.
Austria has quite a few quality AM’s coming through that will do well in the #10 role – at the moment we’ve got Alessandro Schöpf is looking like the most likely starting candidate but we’ve also got Valentino Lazaro, still at Red Bull Salzburg; Sascha Horvath, now at Saint-Étienne; Louis Schaub, now at Burnley; or even one of the few newgens that is actually worth noting – Man Utd’s Marco Schulte, formerly of Austria Wien and now on loan at Rapid.
Did it work? Just a little.
I’ve actually continued into the fourth season and we’ve put together a 30 game winning streak. Our form was so ridiculous that we actually managed to chase down that Salzburg lead, hence the title of this article (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a search for 1995/96 Premier League).
Salzburg being Salzburg, it seemed unlikely even that winning streak was going to be enough but , with 4 games left, the pressure finally told as they lost away to Wolfsberger and Austria Wien with a home draw with Grödig sandwiched in between. That meant we hit top spot with one game to go, the first time this season we’d been top of the pile.
Despite Salzburg’s implosion, this has to rank as the best comeback I’ve ever had in FM and to go with the league title, we completed a domestic double with an ÖFB Cup win over bogey-side Altach.
It wasn’t all good news this season though. Despite our poor performance in the groups, you’d have to consider our progress to be a success for a smaller nation like Austria. Unfortunately, the other sides haven’t been keeping up their end of the bargain and the league rep / continental slots have taken a hit as a result.
This is bad news for our game type. We really need the league reputation to increase to help out the newgen production and help their development whilst playing domestic football. Thankfully the margins which have caused the drop are quite small and, with any luck, not too difficult to claw back so here’s hoping for some better continental performances from RBS, Sturm et al.
I have to be delighted with our own performance, though, and hopefully the players who have produced the goods can kick on to do the same at national level. To give you an idea of just how well some of them played:
Dovedan is swiftly becoming one of my favourites and is challenging Marko Arnautovic for the left wing spot at national level. I was expecting a bigger club to come in with a bid for him over the summer but nothing materialised and so he’ll be spending another season at the Allianz. Unlike a number of his team-mates as I had a proper “club and country” transfer window.
I’ve highlighted 8 first teamers who have been sold, although I did pull off a coup with Fila by insisting on West Brom loaning him back to me for a year while he develops and I find a suitable replacement.
Many people will think that I’m crazy for breaking up such a successful team in so cavalier a fashion but each transfer had a motive behind it and each one aimed at World Cup 2022.
- Sonnleitner was 30, never going to progress any further and unsuited to tutoring. He is replaced by 20 year-old Philipp Lienhart who I think will become an international squad member
- Schwab was 27 and never going to overtake the other midfielders at national level. He also started fewer than 10 league games last season and, in line with the initial rules for the save, he had to go. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t accept any deals at Austrian clubs and Brentford offered the most cash
- Kuen wouldn’t sign a new contract and I was hoping he would move to another Austrian club. Sadly,he went to St Pauli
- I signed Gartner for €350k last summer and sold him this for €2.2m to Palermo. A perfect C&C move as he was stagnating at Düsseldorf. After developing well here, he’s off to a higher rep league where he should kick on further. When he’s sold on, hopefully to a bigger club, we’ll get 25% of that fee too.
- Pavelic had developed as far as he could here and needed a move to push on further. Again, we’ll get 20% of any future fee. I rejected bids from bigger clubs as I need him to get games and felt Livorno was a good level
- Sallahi is very similar to Gartner. Signed for €675k from Bayern where he wasn’t playing, has a good season with us, sold on for €2.7m to Parma where he’ll play regularly in a bigger league and we get 20% of the sale when he inevitably goes to a bigger club.
- I actually didn’t want to let Fila go as I think he could develop well here for another two seasons but he forced my hand and so I made the best of a bad situation – accept the move but insist on a loan back for a year.
- Pellegrini was just never going to kick on. Individually, he wasn’t great as a deep-lying forward and he only performed in spurts as the advanced forward in the 4-2-3-1. With Friesenbichler in need of games and a loan spell away from Benfica, it was a simple choice to sell the former to West Brom and bring in the latter as a superior replacement.
Recently, I’ve been making liberal use of the transfer clauses to ensure that we get a decent, long-term deal out of any sales that we make. Bernhard Fila being a good example:
That adds up to a little over €1m plus 25% of his next transfer fee. That’s good business.
Of course, so many sales left a number of gaps to fill and it’s no use selling on all these players if I then get sacked and can’t keep the production line going.
As already mentioned, I brought in “Super Kev” Friesenbichler on loan from Benfica to replace Pellegrini. He’d been on loan at Lechia in the Ekstraklasa in season 1, doing well, before playing in Benfica’s B team for a year and a half, banging the goals in. Although he got 3 sub appearances for the first team, he wasn’t getting a regular spot and I had to do something.
I’m now looking at Friesenbichler as our first choice international striker with Djuricin having a hard time at Bordeaux and precious little else to choose from. My Director of Football negotiated a €2m purchase price for Friesenbichler but his wage demands were ridiculous – a blessing in disguise.
A loan deal at a very reasonable cost gives me goals for a year and gives Friesenbichler another year to impress. When he goes back to Benfica he’ll have even more chance of a first team spot which would be great for us. Failing that, surely someone will take notice when he’s performing for us in the league, in Europe and at international level? You’d hope so as he’s got potential to be outstanding.
Speaking of outstanding, there’s Sandi Lovric. One of the best Austrian prospects in the game, I had to pay Sturm Graz €4m for his services but I don’t mind sharing the wealth around the Austrian leagues and he really needed to move on for development purposes.
He’s another that I’ve pushed into first team international football and see him as either the roaming playmaker at DM in the 4-2-3-1 or the defensive midfielder in the 4-1-4-1. Either way, 12-24 months in Vienna before a big move to Germany or Italy is the ideal situation here.
I also rescued Stefan Ilsanker from the reserves at Red Bull Salzburg and Simon Piesinger from a similar fate at Sturm. I don’t foresee these guys getting a lot of starts in the big games but, alongside back-up ‘keeper Ivan Lucic, they’ll provide valuable depth.
Martschinko comes in to contest the now vacant leftback slot with Simon Pirkl, with the latter expected to move to a big club next summer. Pirkl’s midfield slot is taken by Marco Schulte, the aforementioned newgen that Man Utd signed from our city rivals FAK.
Austria Wien are the only club doing their bit with the newgen production. Alongside Schulte, they produced an attacking midfielder called Sven Schneider who has sadly been crippled by injury since signing for Southampton; and a very promising striker called Robert Schröder who is just breaking into their first team.
Schulte, though, is hugely versatile and so should get a lot of games for us this season. He did well after joining us on loan last January too and I’d expect him to go on loan to a bigger club next season before being a legit option for Man Utd in a couple of seasons.
Stöger is yet another “rescue job” ater he was released from Stuttgart and he’ll contest the #10 role with, amongst others, undoubtedly the biggest name that we’ve signed yet.
This is our merchandising income graph after signing Keisuke Honda. On a free transfer at just €11kpw, financially it was a no-brainer. As I said before, we already have a number of existing options at national level for AMC, so bringing in Honda isn’t going to harm our national development of #10’s too much.
In fact, with his Professional personality and some nice PPM’s, he’s a great option for tutoring the next generation. Unfortunately, he’s been absolutely terrible on the pitch so far, being outperformed by everyone else in his position. I’m hoping it’s a settling-in problem and so have brought in a Japanese coach in an effort to help him adjust.
All of which leaves my strongest XI probably something like this:
Which, in all honesty, is a team that I would still expect to battle it out with Red Bull Salzburg for domestic dominance.
If it all seems like it’s going smoothly on the club front, you’d be right. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the primary focus of this game – the national team.
After the fantastic success of reaching the Euro 2016 quarter, we’ve spectacularly failed to even qualify for World Cup 2018.
The draw was made before our rankings boost from Euro qualifying and then the tournament itself, so we remained as 3rd seeds meaning a relatively difficult draw with both England and Ukraine to contend with.
Even so, we should have been more competitive than we were as we yet again struggled to find a striker who could perform consistently until I finally settled on that man Friesenbichler.
We were always playing catch-up after a poor 1-0 loss in Swansea and a goalless home draw with Ukraine. Wales’ winner came deep into injury time and we certainly deserved a win from the Ukraine game but you’ve only got yourself to blame if you can’t take your chances.
And as much as we deserved the win in that game, we lucked out with the draw at Wembley – this time relying on a disgusting match engine aberration of an own goal from Wayne Rooney to give us a point. As an aside, Rooney was playing centre half after Leighton Baines’ injury had reduced England to 10 men with 5 minutes to go. Odd choice.
Into the new year and Kevin Friesenbichler’s selection up front immediately improved our performances and form – scoring 3 in victories over Estonia and Wales.
The earlier poor results meant we had to win at home to England and we certainly made a real game of it as Unai Emery’s (yes, Unai Emery) needed two John Stones penalties (yes, John Stones taking penalties) to defeat us.
It wasn’t officially over until the 1-0 defeat in Kyiv but at least we saw the group out in style with a 7-0 thrashing of Lichtenstein to please the fans.
Undoubtedly a disappointing campaign but we screwed ourselves early on, that loss in Wales being the absolute killer. With the emergence of Friesenbichler as a genuine international player, I think we’ve solved our immediate striking problems. The later games against England and Ukraine were very tight affairs which could have gone either way and certainly gives us some hope for Euro 2020 qualifying.
I have experimented with the 4-2-3-1 at international level too but decided it will only be used against the smaller sides, which makes sense. I tried it in the first half of the friendly against Belgium. I’d rested the core of the national team and tried out a bunch of fringe players but we were tanked 3-0 in a desperate first half performance against a full-strength Belgian team. Switching back to 4-1-4-1 at half time, we won the second period 2-1.
This is probably my preferred line-up at the moment, although perhaps not the strongest as I’m looking long term.
The ‘keeper could be any one of Stojanovic (Bologna), Stankovic (Red Bull Salzburg) or Leitner (Rapid Wien) and we’re stacked in midfield with any one of Schöpf (Nürnberg), Alar (Rapid Wien), Horvath (Saint-Étienne), Grillitsch (Werder Bremen on loan at Nürnberg), Schulte (Man Utd on loan at Rapid Wien), Gartner (Palermo), Wydra (Palermo), Büchel (Twente) or Kavlak (Bochum) ready to step in.
Pavelic (now at Livorno) is battling Zulte Waregem’s Lainer for the right-back slot with Sturm Graz’s Phillip Seidl (shortly to move to Rapid Wien) the next contender. I’m hoping that these three will have sorted our right back problem leaving the striker as the only potential medium to long term concern.
Friesenbichler is the undoubted first choice up front now with Alar, Weimann (Watford), Djuricin (Bordeaux) and even on occasion Ashley Barnes (Burnley). Unfortunately, none of the original striking prospects have produced the goods. Pellegrini may kick on after his move to West Brom but I have my doubts whilst Gregoritsch’s severe injury problems have ruined any top level career he may have had and the likes of Kvasina never got game time.
There is hope, though, as Austria Wien have produced a player I think could be quite the talent:
I was sorely tempted to buy him in the summer but opted for the Friesenbichler loan instead as I want FAK to do well this season and provide another challenger alongside Salzburg. If Schröder continues to get game time and develop well then he’d be perfect as Friesenbichler’s back-up for the advanced forward role in the 4-2-3-1. Fingers crossed.
Sadly, as I said above, FAK are the only ones producing any kind of decent newgen. We had another shocking intake and I haven’t found a single player from any other club that I consider to have even an outside chance of a future international spot. There are a couple of dual nationality German newgens we might be able to steal but that’s a risky policy to follow as the really good ones will surely hold out for a cap from our dearest rivals.
Anyway, that’s about your lot for this update and indeed for this year as I post this article an hour and a half before the bells.
I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who has read, commented, retweeted, plugged or otherwise helped this blog over the last year. It hasn’t been my most prolific year due to the aberration that was FM14 but, nevertheless, the views keep coming and it’s great to see so many more people commenting these days.
It still seems mad to me that people would take the time to read my rambling brain dump every couple of weeks.
Happy New Year to you all and all the best for 2015!!