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Pro Vercelli: Mountain Goat v. Mudslide

I’m going to try to get through this season fairly quickly, so I’m planning to cover it in four updates: one for the early season, one before the January transfer window, one in early spring, and one for the last several games. This is Update One. Synchronize your watches.

If you’ve recently visited the Silvio Piola to attend one of our practices and noticed me under a black cloud on the sideline, hugging my clipboard and scowling, maybe yelling a bit too quickly at Jacopo Sammarco for not buckling down in the speed drill, you should know that it isn’t because of our results. Our first few matches have gone well. We’re third in Serie B after nine games, with 18 points from five wins, three draws, and a loss. I probably ought to be happy. Instead, I’m having the opposite experience to last season’s. I’m frustrated with the team, I feel like the general drift is against us,  and I’m fixating on a few specific problems that I can’t figure out how to solve.

table-through-9-games

Let’s look at our results. We won two games in the Coppa Italia, against Legnano and Pisa, before losing 2-1 away to Serie A side Parma. In Serie B, we’ve:

  • Beaten Reggina 1-0 at home on a last-gasp, extra-time goal from David.
  • Drawn 1-1 away to Modena, the worst team in the league, in a match we were set to lose until Miguel José scored from a corner in the 86th minute.
  • Lost 0-1 at home to Mantova, the 18th-place team in the league, in a game in which we held them to just two shots on goal.
  • Beaten Triestina 2-0 away, with good goals from Ibáñez and Landry Akassou.
  • Drawn 0-0 at home with Brescia, the 14th-place team in the league.
  • Drawn 0-0 away to AlbinoLeffe, the 16th-place team in the league.
  • Beaten Ternana 2-0 at home on a goal from Landry Akassou and a penalty from David.
  • Beaten Virtus Lanciano 3-1 at home on goals from Ibáñez, midfielder Lukas Tuma, and our new centerback Roni Zano.
  • Beaten Padova 3-0 away, with two goals from Akassou and a header from Roni Zano.

Decent, right? But we’ve played a lot of weak teams, relied on a few lucky late goals, gotten weak draws against three teams ranked 14th or lower, and generally looked unconvincing—and we haven’t played anyone else in the top five. If we can’t turn things around soon, I’m sweaty-night-terror afraid that our league position is going to dissolve like a mirage when you’re close enough to drink it.

Quickly, what’s going well: Our new signings have generally worked out. Jacob Larsen is brilliant—such a huge improvement in goal that you can instantly see it in games. It’s already happened several times that a player has broken through our defense, come crashing in on goal, and made me curse at the screen before he even took the shot…only for Larsen to fling himself on the ball and make a save that van Dijk couldn’t have dreamed of. We’ve conceded fewer goals than any other team in the league, and he’s the fat slice of why. Two of our other summer transfers have been good as well, Alessio Crucitti (a left-back we signed after Inter released him from the dungeon of their reserves) and Roni Zano (an Israeli centerback I brought in as a backup but have increasingly tended to start over Matthias Cassano).

What’s not: Jorge Ibáñez isn’t scoring. Two goals in nine games isn’t just shockingly bad, but considering that it’s the same total as our backup centerback, and that he’s taken 30 shots and only gotten nine of them on target (and seven of those were hit straight to the keeper), it’s a disappointing return, especially given that he averaged better than a goal every two games last season. I’m sure it’s temperamental and that he’ll go on one of his patented “don’t be mad at me” tears any moment, but he’s out for three weeks with an ankle injury at present, so who knows what form he’ll be in when he comes back. In the meantime, of our 12 goals, five have been from set pieces and one was a penalty. Not exactly inspiring stuff.

More worryingly, we have a midfield problem, and I can’t tell if it’s our players or my tactics. I started noticing last season that regardless of which player I put in which spot, our defensive midfielder would usually finish the match with a high rating, while our two central midfielders would struggle—especially the one with the less attacking mentality, who would not infrequently be rated below six. That trend has continued this season, though somewhat less dramatically. And I’m not sure if it’s just that we have some young midfielders without outstanding skills—Ewan Vignau in particular has really failed to develop:

vignau

Or if I’m missing some obvious spacing/mentality problem that’s leaving the left central midfielder without room to work in or a clear task:

mentalities

Maybe I should separate their mentalities by an additional notch? I want the three midfielders to form a fairly tight unit, but I don’t want things to get crowded. At the same time, there’s already a meaningful mentality gap between them, so maybe I should reduce the space by a notch? Or maybe it’s just that I need to find a better player for that left spot: Iacopino and Vignau, who have mostly been filling it, haven’t exactly shone in the role, but they’re my best defensive central mids, so it stands to reason that other players would be even worse when they were plugged into the position. Maybe a player who met some minimum quality threshold could give me what I want out of that spot?

The trouble is that I can talk myself into any one of these interpretations without quite being able to find real evidence for any of them, so I’ve been getting bitter but not trying to fix things. Suggestions welcome; in the meantime, I’ll start experimenting and let you know what I find. And if we’re still third in the table by the next update, I promise to look for more silver linings.

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Pro Vercelli: Mountain Goat v. Mudslide

by Brian Phillips · March 16, 2009

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