Pro Vercelli: Calculation and Instinct
by Brian Phillips · February 9, 2009
The text of today’s lesson is two styles of game-management, both of which you’ll need if you’re going to make it in this business we call football. Sometimes, the slightest tactical adjustments can make the difference between winning and not winning. Other times, you just have to ignore the sliders and put your trust in your players.
An example of the first kind of match: Pro Vercelli’s recent 1-0 away win over Lumezzane. We were dealing with a couple of key injuries and Lumezzane were strong at home, so I put in a slow, compact, defensive scheme with an emphasis on counterattacking. I’ve been lining up Messi of Waidhofen-Ybbs as a ball-holding support striker, telling him to drop back into the hole and use his height (he’s 6’2″), touch, and strength to control the ball while Ibáñez gets forward. As a way of both clearing the ball and of trying to get a cheap goal, I’d set our goalkeeper’s distribution to “long kick” and told him to aim for Messi, which led to a lot of pitch-stretching long balls being sent in his direction.
As the game wore on, I noticed that the defense was collapsing on him and making it hard for him to control the ball, which he was pretty thoroughly failing to do. In the dying minutes of the game, staring at a dispiriting goalless draw, I told the goalkeeper to try the long kick to Ibáñez instead. And in the 94th minute, I was rewarded with this:
And we snuck away with the vital 1-0 win.
Other times, though, you just have to hope that you’ve prepared your players for the big moments and put your faith in them. I told you before about our new striker Luca Neri, the veteran plagued by crippling self-doubt. (His personality is actually listed as “Low Self-Belief.”) We were playing Vicenza in the second round of the Serie C Cup. Vicenza had just been relegated from Serie B and had pushed us around when we played them in a league match at their home stadium. Now we had them in the Silvio Piola, but Ibáñez was out for a month with a twisted knee, and Neri was making one of his first starts.
We took a quick 1-0 lead through our left-back, Ficarelli. But Vicenza equalized before half-time, then took a 2-1 lead shortly after the break. I thought about making some adjustments, but for some reason I sensed that things were starting to turn in our favor. Then, in the last minutes of the match, Luca Neri, whose confidence I’d been steadily trying to build in our team talks, decided he didn’t want to lose.
Here’s the highlight clip from the wild 4-3 extra-time game that followed:
The season’s going well in general. We’re into December and sitting in fourth place after our weeks-long stretch in second was broken by a draw at third-placed Venezia. But we’re tied on both points (33) and goal differential (+11) with the teams in third and second, and only a point behind Rimini (a team we’ve beaten in both the league and the cup) in first place. Ibáñez is fully awake and blazing through a tremendous, 2009-like year (12 goals in 20 matches), and Messi of Waidhofen/Ybbs has been almost as good (10 in 19). I don’t think we’ve really gelled yet, either. We’ll see what happens after the winter break, when, with any luck, our new signings will start to get the hang of belonging to the greatest club in the world.
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