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.
Fits and starts this season. We finished second in our Europa League group, which was technically Group L but which lived in my mind as Group V2-Prime, with a record of 2 wins, one draw, and a loss. (Specifics: we beat Falkirk twice; split with Lille, the group winners; and took four points against Villarreal.) So we’re through to the first knockout stage, where we’ll be playing Hamburg. If we win there, and I think we can, we go on to play the winner of Nice vs. PSV. If we win there—and again, I think we can—then the season will start to feel like a success. At the moment I’m not sure what it is.
We’ve managed a few very good results: a 1-0 win against Roma at the Olimpico, a 3-1 win at home against Juventus, a 5-0 drubbing of Torino. The first two results are especially pleasing because they’ve cemented our advantage in our rekindled historical rivalry with both teams: since we made it back to Serie A last season, we’ve taken 13 points from Roma and Juventus and only given them four. More importantly still, we beat Empoli 3-1; I’d normally take that as a birthright, but since they’re managed by Devid De Rosa, the tumescent genius Fabio Maglione wanted to replace me with last season, I was happy to make the point.
But we’ve had a lot of lackluster performances, too—losses to Genoa and Atalanta, a 1-1 draw at home against Catania, a 0-3 humiliation against Udinese. More than any surprise victories or defeats, though, what’s been frustrating is the way we’ve conformed to expectations, mostly winning the matches we were supposed to win and losing the matches we were supposed to lose. The end result is far from terrible—we’re in 7th after 20 games—but the absence of any brilliant runs or nightmare collapses has given the year a feeling of uninspired predictability.
I should probably be happy it’s going this well, since we’ve struggled with injuries all season and have at times been forced to play matches with half the starting lineup unavailable. Remember when we first learned we’d made the Europa League and I worried about how fixture congestion would affect the team? Well, fixture congestion has sprained the team’s right ankle. Or in the case of David, broken his toe and kept him out for three of the five months we’ve played since the last update.
But for some reason, the injuries don’t feel like a very big factor, possibly because our performances have been pretty reliably leveling out at par regardless of who’s playing. What’s haunting me, actually, is the way I screwed up the Jacopo Sammarco situation, failing to sign him to a new contract until he was already so determined to leave that I had no choice but to sell him to Schalke for half what he was worth. I replaced him in January with Sergio Solari, an Argentine midfielder whom I bought from San Lorenzo for €9 million. He looks really good—but he’s five years older than, and cost €2.5 million more than I got for, Sammarco, who’s arguably a bit better than Solari as well.
It’s irrational, since no one player makes the team and even the greatest manager in the history of the world is going to lose a player on someone else’s terms at some point. But for some reason I can’t help but feel that my mistake with Sammarco is to blame for the team’s dull edge this season—not because we miss Sammarco so much (we’ve only played three games without him), but because if I’m not absolutely on top of my game at all times, why should the players be? And since we’re not operating on a big-club revenue model, how can I make the team better if I ever replace players at a loss? Like I said, it’s irrational. But it’s probably a feeling every manager would recognize. Welcome to the dark side of the pursuit of greatness.
In any case, we’re stuck with Solari, the most expensive signing in Pro Vercelli history, and I’m not in mourning over this. A couple of seasons ago I would have given my digital right arm for a player like Solari, who wouldn’t have given Pro Vercelli a second look (we were still in Serie B a couple of seasons ago, remember).
Our other signings this year have been pretty good. Arnaldo Mora hasn’t been as big an improvement over Miguel José as I’d hoped, but he’s improving, and Marcelo has been solid, if not spectacular, at the back. But Senad Ibrahimovic has been terrific, probably the best player on the team in David’s absence. He’s indomitable on defense, he never seems to lose a header, and, best of all, he’s scoring goals—he’s scored seven of them, in fact, which puts him in third on the team and in the top 10 in Serie A. (Between his headers and Jefferson Arteaga’s free kick wizardry, we’re scoring nearly as many goals from set pieces as we are from open play.) Ibra recently finished second in the European Defender of the Year voting, largely on the back of his half-season in Vercelli. That moment was its own quiet turning point: the first time I’ve ever felt there was a legitimate star on Pro Vercelli.
So we’re getting by—maybe not taking the world by storm, but holding onto what we have while we build our strength. My goal for the rest of the year is just to make it back into the Europa League, preferably through the league this time. Losing Europe after one season would be a blow, both psychologically and financially. After five sedate months I think we’re due some drama; I just hope it comes in the form of a late run that puts us in fifth or sixth, rather than a late crash that leaves us grasping for thirteenth and rolling down the touchline in flames.
by Brian Phillips · April 20, 2009