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MOMENT OF TRUTH
Last season marked the first time in nearly a decade that Pro Vercelli failed to improve on its league position from the year before. After a summer of tough questions, Lions manager Brian Phillips sat down with our Riccardo Nicastro to talk about what happens next. Just don’t ask him about that game against Inter…
by RICCARDO NICASTRO
What went wrong last season?
You know, some people would say that a club like Pro Vercelli finishing eleventh in Serie A represents something going right, not something going wrong.
Ah. But my friend, you and I both know differently.
Yeah, well, I obviously don’t disagree. A lot of things went wrong last season. If I had to limit it to two areas, I’d say that tactically, we did a terrible job creating shots from open play, and as a team, we lacked the ruthlessness of spirit that you see in, say, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
“Into the jaws of death; into the mouth of hell.”
Exactly. We were more like, “Into the jaws of mild inconvenience; into the mouth of not wanting to wake up sore on Monday.”
And the defensive lapses?
I blame our defensive lapses entirely on the psychological issue. Maybe we had some minor fitness problems as a result of having a small squad and a lot of fixture congestion. But ultimately, we had the players and the scheme we needed to stop other teams from scoring. We were just mentally spongy.
You must know that many fans blame Ibrahimovic.
Well, look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you I think Senad was an adequate leader. That’s why one of the first things I did this summer was to take his armband away. As a captain, he was less Nelson and more Nelson if Nelson had spent the entire course of the Napoleonic Wars pleading for a transfer to the French. The man was Achilles in his tent, minus about three quarters of Achilles. I realize some people are going to read this and think I’m trying to throw Senad under the bus, but Senad knows how I feel about this. Senad saw the bus, liked the bus, crawled under the bus on his own hands and knees, and waited patiently for the bus to start rolling. I deserve a lot of blame for making him captain in the first place.
At the time, you felt you had no choice.
It was a stopgap measure and honestly, I misread Senad’s temperament. Michael [Dogan] was clearly our captain of the future, but he was too young, too new to the team, and, uh, too completely unable to speak Italian yet. Landry [Akassou, the previous captain] had been a great servant to the club, but he was on his way into the reserves and wasn’t going to get many starts once we’d signed Contini. Senad was the most commanding presence on the team, an established veteran all the other players admired. It just never occurred to me that he’d go all Bachelorette the second a Liverpool scout parked his ship in the dock. Senad and I have talked about this.
Yes, somewhat surprisingly, you resolved your differences with all of your disgruntled players over the summer. Can you tell us how you managed it?
Well, I’d say there were five factors, and three of them were money. I think when the news of the new stadium came down, right after the good luck from the Fair Play draw, some of those guys were a little more willing to think about staying at the club. We had money to spend, so as soon as they were ready to enter into contract negotiations, I did what I could to re-sign them. Everybody’s feeling pretty good right now, and nobody’s gone too goggly-eyed over Roma this summer, so hopefully the new trend will continue once the season starts.
Tell us about the new stadium.
You mean Restoration of Sanity Fieldhouse? I can’t tell you what a boost it was, after every single thing went wrong last year, to get word that the board were building a new 23,000-seat arena. It’s going to have undersoil heating, Riccardo. No more specially choosing cleats based on the precise difference in thickness between hoarfrost and rime! I could not be more excited about this.
And it will be ready in approximately one year, is that correct?
That’s correct. Our main job this year is to make sure we give the Silvio a decent sending-off.
Yes; we wouldn’t want its final match to be something like that game against Inter.
That was at the San Siro. And don’t ask me about that game against Inter.
But given your well-known feelings on the natural rivalry between Pro Vercelli and Inter, to see them win the championship by erasing a two-goal deficit to defeat you in the last 15 minutes must have been as painful for you as it was for the fans.
Don’t ask me about that game against Inter.
In that case, alas, I must ask the hard question. What have you done to ensure that next season will be different from last.
We’ve done everything we can. I’m not messing with you, Riccardo. Roberto [Colapietro, Pro Vercelli’s assistant manager] and I went deep into the mix of this team and decided what to adjust based on a relentless quest to apprehend the nature of reality. It was a journey into hard math and the realm of the human soul. I think the result is going to blow people’s minds next season. Now, granted, I thought that last season, too, so maybe you’ll say you shouldn’t listen to me, but shut up.
Can you be a great deal more specific?
It breaks down a few different ways. One, we’re pulling the striker back slightly in the attacking scheme so that he doesn’t lose so many first touches to the marking defender. Two, we’ve added a couple of new configurations within the 4-3-3 to enable us to control possession in midfield, on the one hand, and kill off a game at the end, on the other. Three, we’re demoting Barone and bringing in an extremely promising 19-year-old Brazilian striker called Teixeira to alternate with Galli in the starting 11. I know some fans aren’t happy about this because they’ve heard he’s a prima donna. I think he’s going to score goals, and since he scored two before halftime in his first match (granted, it was a Europa League qualifier), I think he’s going to win people over.
Four, I’ve made Michael Dogan captain, and let Senad know he’s on a short leash. Interestingly, Michael won the Serie A Defender of the Season award that Senad got last year, so I’m hoping this will light a fire under Captain Liverpool. Five, we’ve used some of our Champions League TV money to buy a youth team. I won’t go into details on individual players until one or more of them is ready to start, but we have five or six promising kids who should put some pressure on the first team and give us cover in the event of an injury. They’ve been playing in all our Europa League qualifiers, and even given that Average Bucharesti isn’t exactly Arsenal, they’ve scored a ton and haven’t conceded a goal. So far, so good.
Six, I’ve completely revamped our training system, designing individual schedules for every player under 26 based on my latest theories about how to wring the most out of each player.
Seven, I’ve brought in an attack-minded midfielder to play in the center of the park, where we’ve been essentially packing three defensive midfielders simultaneously. Naci Balci was more of a natural attacker, but he’s been shipped off to Shakhtar as punishment for demanding an absurd amount of money in his new contract. The new player is Kenji Mogi, Lecce’s brilliant Japanese international, and since he’s both a little older—26—and sterner of mind than Naci, I’m hoping he’ll add some danger to the middle of the pitch.
Siobhan pointed out that this means we’re a northern Italian team relying on a commanding German player for leadership and a resolute Japanese player for attacking flair. I don’t want to say who that makes us, but it’s probably no surprise that Jorge Ibáñez was always so conflicted while he was here.
You are describing the team as the Axis powers.
If you’re selling a sham doctrine of racial purity, we’ve got fake scientists ready to listen.
And what do you feel about having become the Axis powers?
Shame. I feel shame, Riccardo. On the other hand, it more or less accurately describes my mood toward the rest of the league.
By this, you mean to give the fans a sense that you’ve devised an organized and powerful response to the problem.
No. I have devised an organized and powerful response to the problem. The only sense I’m trying to give the fans is that last year was an aberration and this year world shipping had better look out for our U-boats.
Thank you, my friend, for taking the time to speak to us. I hope Adèle and I will see you at the villa again before the season starts.
Are you planning to finish that cappuccino?
by Brian Phillips · May 15, 2009[contact-form 5 'Email form']