The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Pro Vercelli: My Pearl-Handled Children Are Mathletes

This is going to be a Pro Vercelli day, because I’m tired, and thinking about the David Beckham chronicle of sharing makes my brain click back into itself like a just-returned pen at the bank. There are substantive posts in the pipeline, I promise.

Anyway, this is amazing. We are in seventh place in Serie B. It’s March 4th, and we are in seventh place. Not only are we not going to get relegated, we’re not yet out of the promotion race. Serie B uses a weird point-differential system to determine the specifics of the end-of-year playoff, but basically, if there are fewer than 10 points between the third and fourth place teams (as there almost certainly will be), and we can fight our way into sixth (which we’re currently separated from by just one point), we get to play for the right to join Serie A next season. We were 150-1 underdogs at the beginning of the year, but at this point, I wouldn’t count us out.

All of which almost makes me feel better about the fact that our goalkeeper Marciano van Dijk recently signed his name to what may be the worst own goal in the history of competitive football. Watch as he catches the cross, waits for the other players to clear out, then drops the ball directly into the net off the side of his own foot.

Watch the worst own-goal ever

We still won the match, though, 4-2 against a heavily favored Hellas Verona. Which tells you something about what kind of season it’s been. We’ve gone bird’s-eye on our preseason expectations, and our two January signings—Igor Jovanovic, a left back on a half-season loan, and Lukas Tuma, a young Czech midfielder who’s been filling in for the erratic Ewan Vignau—have brought in kegs of jet fuel.

The switch to the 4-3-3 (I’m upgrading it from a 4-1-2-3 because I’m gradually letting Sammarco play a more attacking role) worked beyond my most feverish dreams, due in large part to the fact that Ibáñez never lived until he got to try the role of strong, tall, lone striker who can hold the ball and also fly forward on the counterattack. He’s averaging a goal every game and a half since he came back from his hip injury, and his sustained brilliance has driven the wingers to new heights—especially Landry Akassou, who’s changed from a kick-it-straight-to-the-goalkeeper striker to an assists machine with the highest average rating on the team.

Here’s a slowed-down example of how the 4-3-3 can work against a good defense, in this case that of Ascoli, one of the relegated teams from Serie A. You’ll see the midfield triangle in the center with the other players arrayed around them. The central midfielders work the ball between them, then slip it to the left back when no openings emerge. He knocks it back to the midfield. Finally, Antonelli sends it ahead to Ibáñez. When the centerbacks collapse on him, Akassou (at the top right of the screen) cuts inside. Ibáñez passes back to Sammarco, who sees Akassou hovering in the space vacated by the centerbacks when they closed down Ibáñez, plays a ball to him at the edge of the box, and gives him the chance to score. It’s not beautiful, but it’s patient, and it works. We beat Ascoli 2-0 in a historic upset.

Watch the 4-3-3 in action

The rest of the season breaks down into three very separate phases. First we have a set of three games against good mid-table teams, ninth-placed Ravenna, 11th-placed Salernitana, and eighth-placed Triestina:

Then comes a brutal five-game stretch in which we play the top four teams in the league (Torino, Pisa, Brescia, and Bari, in that order) along with 19th-ranked Grosseto:

And we finish the year with a five-game run against weaker teams, including 15th-placed Cagliari, 21st-placed Chievo, 13th-placed Padova, 17th-placed Modena, and 10th-placed Mantova:

For the last three seasons in Serie B, the sixth-placed team has had between 64 and 66 points at the end of the season. We’re on 44 now:

So I’m calculating that we’ll need 22 points over our final 13 games to have a shot at the playoff. Wolves howl in forgotten forests at the thought that this team could be in Serie A next year; I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but then, it’s already an unexpected triumph not to be locked in a relegation fight at this point in the season. Everything that happens after that is breezes.

Song clips: Blind Pilot, “Poor Boy”; The Clovers, “One Mint Julep”

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Pro Vercelli: My Pearl-Handled Children Are Mathletes

by Brian Phillips · March 6, 2009

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