Pro Vercelli: No Title, No Leash
by Brian Phillips · August 19, 2009
I’m not going to spend a lot of time crying about what a tragedy last season was. We won the European Cup. Yes, we lost our streak of consecutive Serie A titles and got blown out by A.C. Milan, but we still finished second in the league, won the Club World Cup and the UEFA Super Cup, and ended the season as champions of Europe. That’s not a bad year, even if it doesn’t live up to all our (unearthly, outsize, hyperinflated) expectations.
Except, of course, that I don’t actually feel this way. I might have, if we’d finished second to Roma and won at the San Siro. But the Milan teams…I don’t like losing to the Milan teams. Especially not since my personal rivalry with Vito Scialpi escalated last year when he took umbrage at my having dared to suggest that he didn’t deserve every farthing of his €450,000/week salary. That was a trial by combat I wasn’t keen to lose, and the fact that we lost it semi-tainted everything good that happened last year.
So: first plan for the summer. Find a way to get the advantage back.
Only, actually, it goes beyond that, too. Independent of Milan or any other team, we were in a malaise last season. I’m not talking about anything dramatic, and we partly dispelled it by winning the European Cup, but there was a sense that things in general were moving in the wrong direction. A lot of complaining, a lot of players not getting along. A lot of the noxiousness that builds up around spectacular success. By the end of the year I was feeling like all the little things I didn’t like about the team, all the niggles I’d been able to overlook while we were on top, were snowballing.
Take personnel. I broke the club’s transfer record to bring in Tim Hauk, supposedly a world-class left back. And he turns out to be a kind of gnomish tree stump who couldn’t mark a page.
Or take tactics. The 4-3-3 I’d instituted years before was—obviously—good enough for us to win most of our games, but it was essentially a defensive formation designed for a team trying to work around a talent deficit. Its main advantage was the holding midfielder, who provided incredible defensive cover (leading to our conceding a total of 39 league goals in the last two seasons combined) while being able to pick out attacking passes anywhere in the top two-thirds of the pitch. Its main disadvantage was that there was no way within the match tactics (or no way I could figure out) to make the attack-minded midfielder come up aggressively enough, or the weak-side winger pull inside far enough, to keep the lone striker from being isolated in the area. We scored a lot of goals, but it was impossible to guess where the next one was going to come from. And our striker was often stranded in terrible positions—no help with loose balls or rebounds, forced to drop back to provide link-up play and then get forward to spearhead the attack singlehandedly—that led to poor match ratings and a general sense of confusion.
Well, here’s the thing: we don’t suffer from a talent deficit any more. We are, and emphatically, stacked. And given that we’re stacked, I’d like to give other teams something a little more frightening to think about. By the Champions League final, I was thoroughly tired of playing patient, intelligent football, not conceding, and taking goals where we could find them. I had some of the best players in the world on my team, and I wanted to unleash constant panic in the opposition’s box. I wanted to play fast, aggressive, utterly positive football, trade our pristine defensive record for strikers who could sow terror wherever they went, and scatter our enemies like sand. I wanted to invert the pyramid. I wanted to turn the freaking pyramid upside down.
Enter the 3-4-3. It’s become a fairly popular formation by 2021—less so, obviously, than the Mourinho-style 4-3-3 we were using, but Milan won a heap of league titles with it (they’re increasingly switching to 4-4-2 now, it seems), and teams like Napoli and Grosseto have adapted it (sometimes using a sweeper, sometimes not) to their less-talented players. I’ve always loved the simplicity of it, and with some focused central defenders, side midfielders who don’t mind tracking back, and a front line of hot-blooded murderers, I’m convinced we could use it wreak havoc in the lives of all who stood against us. Refashioning the squad would give us a chance to sort out some team issues, too.
So meet Pro Vercelli 3.0, the first major revision to the team since we switched to the 4-3-3 back in 2012, when Jacopo Sammarco, who now has 286 league appearances for the club, could still be described as “our new signing.” Obviously switching to a formation that adds two strikers and eliminates the fullbacks required some changes to the cast. But actually, we put this together without too many shocking moves (fewer than I’d expected, anyway, since after Rotterdam I was planning to do a Real Madrid ’09). Here’s the timeline of the major moves:
1. SOLD Tim Hauk to Barcelona for €46 million. Why they wanted him, I have no idea, but I jumped on the offer like the last coffin leaving the Pequod. Not only did this mean we wound up making a €17 million profit on one of our biggest transfer disasters, it also meant I didn’t have to worry about offloading any other fullbacks, since a) Michael Dogan can play left midfielder and central defender, b) the Ferj can play defender, right midfielder, and central mid/bowling ball, c) Alessio Capuano, our 21-year-old wonderboy, can be converted into a central defender with a bit of training. Just a relieving move all around.
2. BOUGHT Ander Irureta from Espanyol for €20.5 million. The 3-4-3 has a bottomless hunger for strikers, and we only had a couple on the shelf. Irureta, a 29-year-old Spaniard who’s starred for Espanyol over the last seven seasons, is a classic fox in the box: 19 finishing, 19 composure, 18 technique. I just want him to hide out among the centerbacks, popping up every now and again, Inzaghi-like, to thread the ball into the net.
3. BOUGHT Teixeira back from Atlético Madrid for €30 million (sort of). Well, I said we needed strikers. I sold him in a fit of frustration a season ago, but he got 14 in 28 for Atlético last season, and I have a hunch he could be devastating with the right strike partners. His personality is a concern, especially since I’m trying to clear out the locker-room cobwebs, but there was also the economic consideration. Namely: We sold him to Atlético in 2020 with the following stipulations: a) they could spread out the €30 million fee over two years; b) we get 50% of his next transfer fee. As a result, they’ve only paid €15 million of the fee so far. We essentially just handed that back, since the €30 million we were now giving up for him was cut in half by the 50% sell-on clause we’d arranged. And they still owe €15 million more in monthly installments. So, to cut through all the complexities, the bottom line is that they’re paying us €15 million for essentially having taken him on loan for a season. They never would have agreed to sell him back to us, but he had insisted on a €30 million release clause in his contract before he signed with them. So this was just a case where all the numbers lined up too well not to make the move for a player who, though he drives me crazy, is still a minor genius around the goal.
4. SOLD Kenji Mogi to Atlético Madrid for €12 million. They came in for him right after the Teixeira deal, so I guess there weren’t any hard feelings. I love Kenji Mogi, but he was out injured for almost the entirety of last season, and we didn’t really miss him. And since the 3-4-3 cuts the number of central midfielders (counting the holding mid) from three to two, we were sitting on a surplus.
5. BOUGHT Hugo from Sporting for €12 million. An extra central defender (since we’re going from two to three) and also a steady, veteran presence who should have a good effect on team chemistry. He’s 32, has 121 caps for Portugal, and—having spent his entire career at Sporting—seemed eager to make one last run with a top club before he starts facing retirement.
6. BOUGHT Michele Carbone from Spartak Moscow for €10 million. Another striker, this one a 21-year-old Italy youth international who somehow found himself out in the cold in Moscow. I picked him up kind of on a whim, largely because he’s got a deadly strike partership going with our Michele Proietti in the Italy U21 team, and I want Proietti to see a lot of first-team football this year. If they click, they could be anchoring our front line for many seasons to come.
7. BOUGHT Ahmed Vaz from Barcelona for €2.7 million. A Michael Owen-to-Man Utd move. Vaz is a historically great left winger who’s starred for Barcelona over the last 11 seasons. But he’s 35, and Barça have another world-class left winger starting in his place, and they weren’t too keen to sign him to another huge contract. He was available for nothing, and even though he’ll probably disintegrate before our eyes over the next couple of seasons, he’s too good to leave alone at that price. Even if he gives us one great semester of football, it’ll have been worth €2.7 million. And as a natural leader and a steadying presence in the locker room, I’m hoping he’ll join Hugo (and Michael Dogan, and Emanuel Sylla, and Dmitry Kozlov, and all our other veterans) in counteracting the Teixeira Effect and keeping the team together.
8. SOLD Mark Linnane to Liverpool for €14 million. This was nothing personal. Linnane was a fantastic player for us, not to mention a way to pay tribute to an actual guy at SI, but, at 31, he was showing signs of decline, and with Dogan, David, and Vaz, we were looking a little crowded at left midfielder. Liverpool offered most of what we’d spent on Linnane three seasons ago (we bought him for €15 million) and we took it.
So this is where we are. Will it work? I’m planning to be patient. There’s been enough player turnover, on top of the radical change in our tactics, to keep the team unsettled for a while, so I’m not expecting instant awesomeness. The plan here is Tiger Woods taking a year to fix his swing, and if all goes well, we’ll come back soon and win a calendrically flawed Grand Slam. In the meantime, we will spread riot throughout Serie A and be sensationally fun to watch. We’ve got an 8500-seat addition in the works at the Naming Rights, and if things go according to plan, the fans who get those seats will not go home lacking in memories.
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