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: Shooting Stars Is
What I’d Like to Do

Here’s a quick rundown of the last 10 league games, or, as I’ve taken to calling them, “the complete repudiation of all we are and stand for.”

  • L at Udinese 0-1: We actually had more of the ball—a rare accomplishment this season—but only got one shot on target. Joep Mommers scored before halftime and, utterly Joeped, we never got back into the match.
  • W vs Parma 2-0: Parma are really good this year, but we crushed them at the Silvio Piola, holding them to one shot and battering them from all angles. Still, our only goals came from a corner and a penalty, the latter in the 90th minute.
  • W vs Fiorentina 4-1: After this match I thought we were back on track. Barone came back from a spell on the bench to score a majestic first-half hat trick, undoubtedly prompting the Italian papers to use whatever word they use in the situations where the English papers use “imperious.” We still only had 42% of the ball, though.
  • L at Roma 2-4: Roma became the second team to score four on us this season with this game. I tried benching Aivar Kulik due to his poor performances, and Miguel José took the rare opportunity of a start to gift-wrap two goals for the opposition. Barone went off injured. Maybe we weren’t back on track after all.
  • W vs Genoa 3-0: A huge win against one of the teams that challenged us for the final Champions League spot last season. The fact that all three of our goals were scored by centerbacks (one from a corner, two from indirect free kicks) was almost beside the point.
  • L at Atalanta 0-2: A miserable loss against a mediocre team. Both goals came in the last 7 minutes, after I’d tried to push the players forward to try to steal a win. Our losing streak away from the Silvio Piola continued.
  • L at Juventus 0-1: And continued again in our first match after the winter break. Juventus had a man sent off right after scoring in the 19th minute, and we had two-thirds of the possession, but they packed their entire team behind the ball and we could barely find a shot. By the end I was telling our players to take rushed long shots and not worry about the perfect pass. I left the game feeling about as bankrupt as I’ve felt at Pro Vercelli.
  • L vs Inter 0-1: So much for our winning streak at the Silvio Piola. Our third straight loss hurt more because it came in the 1910 Derby in front of our home fans. It hurt more still because we actually had the better of the game and came close to scoring several times. It hurt most because it left me with no better sense of what I ought to be trying to turn things around.
  • L at Lecce 2-3: For our fourth straight loss, why not add a nice helping of abject humiliation? Lecce are terrible, and yet came roaring back from from a 2-1 deficit to beat us. Ibrahimovic managed a 5.3 rating for the game and had to be taken off shortly after halftime. Did I mention that Ibrahimovic was recently named European Defender of the Year?
  • W at Palermo 1-0: It looks like this game broke our losing streak, and technically it did, but a) Palermo’s best player was injured before halftime, b) Palermo still managed three times as many shots as we did, and c) the game was decided by a fifth-minute own goal. Not exactly the stuff of legends. It was almost like the first game of our losing streak emeritus.

The Champions League played out a little more encouragingly. After losing two games to Barcelona by a combined score of 4-6, we had to beat Lyon at home and Partizan away—and hope that Lyon would lose to Barça—to have a chance of advancing out of our group. We lived up to our end of this with a great 4-2 win over Lyon and a 3-1 win over Partizan. But Lyon held Barça to a draw in the last game, so our comeback didn’t really mean much:


And now we’re stuck in fifth in Serie A and fluttering down to the first knockout round of the Europa League.

What’s alarming about all this is that I can’t see any obvious cause for our struggles; there must be some correctable factor or factors, but when I watch the team, I don’t see what they are. We have noticeably better players than we did last year, they all seem to be doing okay, and yet we’re on pace to score fewer goals and concede more goals than we did last season. I can’t point to a lot of blatant tactical errors I’ve made, and yet we’re losing games late and failing to come back after we give up a lead. Maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board with our tactics, but if I’m going to do that, I’d like to have a clear sense of what I’m trying to accomplish beyond “win more games,” and at the moment, I just don’t have it.

I’ve been trying to keep from overreacting, especially since there’s a chance the team just needs more time to gel. I didn’t bring in any new senior players in January, and I didn’t sell anyone or make wholesale changes to the team sheet. That, actually, could be part of the problem, because I turned down huge bids for some of our best players, and a few of them—namely Sammarco, Contini, and Ibrahimovic—are now unhappy at not being allowed to move to a bigger club. I don’t usually worry when one player is unhappy, but three, particularly when one of them is the captain, could mean a serious drag on our motivation.

Well, Ibrahimovic can sulk all he wants; there’s nothing I can do about it till the end of the season. At this point, the only way forward is to hold on and hope that over the next four months the team will get its nerve back and reclaim its place in the top four. We have the head-to-head tiebreaker secured over Palermo, which could be huge. If we wind up not qualifying for the Champions League next year, that rumble of discontent from players wanting to leave for bigger clubs is likely to turn into a roar.

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Pro Vercelli: Shooting Stars Is
What I’d Like to Do

by Brian Phillips · May 8, 2009

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