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Pro Vercelli: The Vase and the Flowers to Put in It

I’ve always been a partisan of the 4-4-2 in FM. It’s classic, flexible, easy to implement, and simple to reconfigure for all kinds of attacking and defensive possibilities. Most importantly, I’ve used it so much that I understand how it works in the game in a way that I don’t many other formations. I’ve enjoyed playing around with other schemes—most notably the Brazilian midfield (two defensive midfielders, two attacking midfielders, no wingers) that I used to take Heerenveen to the Eredivisie title in FM08—but I’ve always gone back to the 4-4-2 in the end. It’s just comfortable.

So it was with a feeling of low-grade panic that I realized that Serie B was going to require me to change. We’d played our first eleven matches, and after a fantastic start to the season—winning our first two games, including an astonishing 5-1 rout of Piacenza—we’d gone into a full plummet, scoring three goals in our next nine matches and eking out a record of one win, three draws, and five losses. I said in my last update that our hopes of staying up would depend on the (for me) always somewhat unfathomable mystery of whether our strikers would be able to convert easy chances. Well, they were not able. Messi of Waidhofen/Ybbs hadn’t scored all season, Akassou had managed one goal, and Jorge Ibáñez had heroically managed two (one against a Serie C team in the Coppa Italia) before going down for two months with a hip injury. He was still our leading scorer.

Almost as troublingly, I was having a huge selection headache in midfield. In my usual 4-4-2, I like to give one central midfielder attacking duties and leave the other in a holding role. The choice for the latter was easy: Jacopo Sammarco, our new signing, who was a defensive midfielder at heart and one of the best players at the club. But if I played Sammarco as my defensive-minded midfielder, it meant that the only spot for Ewan Vignau was as an attack-minded midfielder, a role in which he tended to struggle. (He tended to do very well in the role I was giving to Sammarco.) I had a good attack-minded midfielder in Marco Antonelli, but if I played him along with Sammarco, it meant leaving Vignau, one of my best players, out of the squad.

Normally, I probably would have tried to press on and use Vignau as a high-class substitute. But we were doing so badly that that didn’t seem like an option: I needed a way involve all my good midfielders, de-emphasize my struggling strikers, and work the ball into the goal. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to change formations.

Swallowing my trepidation, by which I mean the Chinese leftovers I had for lunch, I picked up my low-fi FM tactics manager (a sheet of paper and a pen) and set up a 4-1-2-3 that, I hoped, would get the team working again. The idea was to use three midfielders as a kind of fulcrum to get the ball to my two attacking wingers and lone striker. Antonelli, my attack-minded midfielder, would try to get forward fairly aggressively, while my striker—Messi, as long as Ibáñez was hurt—would drop back and hold up the ball. The fullbacks would attack down the flanks behind the wingers or stay back and defend, depending on the circumstances. I slotted Vignau in as a neutral central midfielder, and Sammarco in as a straight defensive mid, but with a high degree of creative freedom and boosted-up through-balls instructions in the hope that he could continue to guide the attack from the back.

The attacking version of the tactic looked like this:

Yes, it’s a bit Chelsea-under-Mourinho-looking, but then, Chelsea under Mourinho would never have lost 0-1 to Frosinone.

I was hoping that moving David up to left winger would allow him to wreak havoc on the defense in a way that Carlo Saba couldn’t, and also that playing Akassou as a right winger would take advantage of his prodigious dribbling and crossing skills while taking his awful shooting out of play. Moving David to winger created a problem at left back, because Bicalho had gone down with a torn calf muscle that would take five months to heal (I wickedly terminated his loan rather than paying half his wages till April—did I mention that this was a tough season?) and I didn’t have anyone else to fill the position. I’d have to use Monti, a backup centerback, and try to work something out in January.

Before our first match with the new tactic, a tough home game against fifth-placed Triestina (we were in 18th, on the border of relegation territory), I tried to remind myself not to expect immediate results, as it would unsettle the team to change the system so dramatically.  But I don’t know—I must be the greatest manager in the history of the world or something, because these are our results in the five matches since I made the switch:

Of these teams, Triestina (whom we beat) was ranked fifth, Brescia (whom we beat) was ranked second, and Pisa (whom we tied) was also ranked second (because Brescia dropped to third after we beat them). We did lose 2-0 to Bari, but they’re also one of the best teams in the league, and two wins, two draws, and a loss during this brutal stretch of the season feels as good as perfect at this point. Especially because Messi scored twice, Akassou scored, David scored, and even when we weren’t winning, even when I was using the most defensive variant of the tactic, we were still spending a lot more time galloping around our opponent’s half of the pitch. It’s also the first time since I’ve been at Pro Vercelli that playing wider and trying to use the flanks in the attack has made us more dangerous rather than leaving us weeping in a little huddled ball.

We’re up to 13th with a third of the season gone:


If Ibáñez comes back in a good mood and I can find a left back over Christmas, we might have some hope. Fingers crossed.

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Pro Vercelli: The Vase and the Flowers to Put in It

by Brian Phillips · March 2, 2009

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