Warning: The following article will contain butchered Italian from an Aussie.
Salute, amici mio. Mi dispiace per il terribile Italiano, I still haven’t found the finances for an intensive language course. Yet somehow, this in no way restricts me from plying my managerial trade in Vercelli più bella.*
*Purely in a fantasy construct that exists only in my mind and in binary code on my hard drive.
There are two major upsides I’ve found to managing in Italy. First, is that sartorially, there’s really no reason to go without a suit and a fine pair of Italian dress shoes. Second, the Italian leagues have perhaps the most diverse and “European” tactical approaches and player roles being employed by your esteemed managerial peers. Registas, Liberos, Trequartistas and, of course, the fabled Catenaccio Calcio – Door-Bolt Football. Also, bribing officials, but let’s stick with the great Italian tradition of ignoring that.
My save at Pro Vercelli was conceived with the idea of bringing beautiful football back to the small northern-Italian comune, of the kind that saw the Bianche Cassache tour the world like Italian Harlem Globetrotters in the early 20th century. And what better way to achieve that than with a strikerless system. Dynamic midfielders pressing up the pitch, intelligent shadow strikers constantly working the spaces between the defenders. Bellissimo. Thus, I began the task of re-building the team for strikerless formations, with the eventual goal of reaching the honeyed group stages of Europe – a necessity for continued survival when your club is based in a “city” of less than 50,000. It was thus that I loaded up my FM17 version of Guido’s Classic Strikerless Revival, complete with a few overhauled roles and an overload mentality, because it turns out goals are quite beautiful, who knew?
Unprepared for our “whatever the Italian word for Blitzkrieg is tactic,” our competition crumbled disappointingly before us. Our newly-overhauled Leoni managing to win a shock promotion from the Serie B in our first season, winning the playoffs after finishing fourth. With a young squad not yet ready for the demands of the Serie A, it was time to do some shoestring recruiting, and come up with a tactic that would give us a better chance against the defensive juggernauts of the Serie A. “It stands to reason that scoring less goals would require us to subsequently concede less,” my brilliantly-astute managerial mind told me, as my well-travelled right wrist desperately searched for experienced free agents. Thus did my five-at-the-back strikerless system arrive into the world, a bold and masterful decision by myself to copy what every other club was doing and combine it with the fact I had no strikers and had spent all my budget securing the backline.
A more patient and possession-based approach, a solid back five and a fluid midfield, but the details of the ProVerKill will have to wait for another post, dear readers, as it is merely part of the narrative that gives context to the strikerless wet dream that was my recent match with AS Roma, for suffice to say that, in our third season in the Serie A, the ProVerKill was working a treat.
And thus was the top-of-the-table clash with the mighty Roma established as the make-or-break moment of our vastly over-achieving season (after we won our game in hand against Carpi). The match was a six-pointer. A loss would mean not only allowing Roma to close the gap, but attack the rest of their season with momentum, whilst our patchy recent form had us on the knife-edge of losing our morale and slipping down the table; I’d seen it happen too many times in the previous three seasons for me to be anything less than certain that this game was a must win.
The press were abuzz with anticipation, highlighting the fact that Roma had won 5 of their last 6 against us, and that we’d never managed to keep the bustling Croatian striker Bruno Petkovic goalless. Given our recent cup-and-league double losses to rivals Torino, I was more than a little worried about our chances of taking three points from the match. Luciano Spalletti had shown himself more than capable of finding a way through the ProVerKill with almost contemptuous ease, players like Mohamad Salah and Radja Nainggolan seemed to be incapable of having a quiet match against us. No, our mainstay would not be enough for this crucial game, and thus…
The deadly Roman 4-3-3 would be contested by the diamond-backline of our Strikerless Catenaccio, a counter-mentality tactic formed entirely around neutralizing the threats of Spalletti’s front five. The game was poised to be one for the annals of our club’s history, perhaps the point to which football fans of the future would look back and say: “That was the game that made Vercelli the powerhouse they are today. ”
And so my friends, I’ll no longer tease you with snippets of information, for here as follows is the tale of how lowly Pro Vercelli rose to see off mighty AS Roma and break their cursed run against I Giallorossi.
The Bruno Petkovic Job.
So often the cause of Vercelli’s misery, Bruno Petkovic had earned the necessity of having a specific marker whose job it was to shut down his aerial presence and dynamism in attack. As our strongest marker and no slouch in the air himself, Cameron Carter-Vickers would get the nod, the young American earning the responsibility over more experienced names with a string of good performances throughout the season.
Carter-Vickers would achieve a criminally low match rating of 6.6, but his job was done admirably. As essentially a “spare man” in defence, he was given instructions to mark Petkovic specifically, and mark his opponent tightly, and you can see just how effective he was against the big man.
Petkovic won a mere 8/22 of his aerial duels, and was contained to only one half-chance, a third of all the chances Roma generated in the match. Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that he had not a single touch inside our penalty area. He was kept so ineffective that he was eventually dragged from the field of play.
The Mercurial Luka Ivanusec
I have written extensively about the dynamism of the “Box to Box playmaker,” with more analysis sure to follow in the ProVerKill piece, and Luka Ivanusec is one of the finest examples of the role I can show. His PPMs are what allow him to break the confines of the game engine’s Box to Box midfielder role and be a constant threat in attack as well as in the defensive phase of play. In this match, Ivanusec was immense – a constant in the opposition’s area on the counter or the end of passing build-up play, and he scored the breakthrough goal early in the game.
A cursory glance at the above image shows the areas around the opposition penalty area he generated a scoring chance from, and contrasts with the points of interceptions, where you can see he was also very active in deeper areas of the pitch, clearly highlighting the necessity of high work rate and stamina for this role, as well as broad technical ability and anticipation.
His average position with and without the ball tell a similar story, showing the difference in his mentality when the team is with and without possession.
A quick look at his passing output shows just how important to our ball movement he is, as he racked out a whopping 96 completed passes in a primarily defensive tactic, with approximately half of his passes coming in our attacking half.
Needing no time to grow into the match, Luka managed to get in behind the Roma defence in the 14th minute and used all of his 8 finishing to stab the ball home past the keeper.
The noses of I Lupi were bloodied from futile jabs at our valiant defensive coalition, and Luka had taken his chance to give the lead to the famous white shirts, but Spalletti would prove his tactical nous, and show that he too was a student of a certain popular blog…
The Strikerless Wet Dream
Spalletti and I get along quite well, despite the Italian manager’s almost flawless head-to-head record against me in my role as Vercelli manager, that same record that gave me the desire to finally achieve a tactical victory over Luciano, discounting a pre-season friendly in which we fortunately triumphed two seasons earlier. Perhaps then it is great praise from such a manager that he would take a page from my book. In a Kiraly-esque move, Spalletti made early changes to the system, the tactical mastermind at the helm of the Red-and-Gold ship clearly eager to show me that he too was a student of Master Guido. Unfortunately, so rocked was I by the changes to the Roma system, I only had the wherewithal to capture one barely-sufficient image as proof of what I could scarce believe was happening.
Like an out-of-focus snapshot of a hulking ball of fur, there are still those that will claim such as proof of Bigfoot. But really, if any team would try, would have the sheer gumption to use a strikerless tactic, it would be Roma, the only club that springs to mind when one hears the very mention of the football-hipster’s magnum opus. Suddenly, I knew. Luka’s goal could not be relied upon to see us to three points in this match. There was fight in the children of the wolf, and we would need to strike a killing blow. But the gauntlet had been cast into the stud-softened turf of the Stadio Olimpico, and it was no longer Kiraly vs Spalletti; it was Strikerless vs Strikerless.
Luciano’s curve ball hit like a hockey puck to the gonads. The player’s dispositions were beginning to shift, the “seems confident” descriptors quickly disappearing from the body language column. I had to think fast, big decisions had to be made at a speed that seemed to impossibly demanded I hit pause on the world, and go to some sort of tactical overview user interface. Cameron Carter-Vickers, the sweeper, would only be drawn out of position ahead of the defensive line by trying to follow the movement of Bruno Petkovic, thus his job became simply to mop up any attempted balls in behind the center-back partnership of Vanheusden and Jedvaj, yet again a key role in overcoming an attacking strikerless formation. Likewise, The shadow strikers who were given the job of dropping deeper on defence to help the midfield put pressure on the long-range threats of Nainggolan and Strootman were now at sixes and sevens, Nainggolan being employed alongside Petkovic in attacking midfield.
With even more emphasis being placed on the creative capabilities of Salah and Keko, the usually-consummate Fabian Monzon, recently returned from leave in his native Argentina, was showing that maybe his head was still in Santa Fe, as the wing-back was having a torrid time at keeping the talented Salah at bay. With a change made for the Scot Stephen Kingsley, I decided to ask the wing-backs to put more emphasis on defending, as club icon Umberto Germano would be pleased to hear having put in a shift already, but still doggedly keeping the right-flank locked down.
Special mention must also go to the young Simone Pipolo, who despite the lack of experience was able to play the full 90 minutes against a top European side, utilizing his passing to brilliant effect as a Deep-Lying Playmaker (D) at the tip of the defensive diamond, whilst also laying on four important tackles and making 14 interceptions.
Despite our more defensive approach, Vercelli were still able to threaten Roma on the attack, exploiting the space between the defensive-midfielders and the forward bank of four. The thrust-and-riposte continued as Roma continued to search for a way through the stalwart diamond of white shirts, but the levee finally broke in the 85th minute when Grzegorz Krychowiak, already on a yellow, cynically fouled Nikola Moro, who had just replaced Facundo Colidio, from behind. The defensive midfielder let his frustration show, as he received a flat-red for his needless challenge, just ahead of the center circle in Vercelli’s attacking half. To rub salt into the would, the resultant free kick was lofted in to the back post, where the completely dominant Zinho Vanheusden was able to cap his impeccable defensive display with an assist, nodding the ball back across goal for Luka Kerin, who set up the first goal, to tap home from six yards out and thus completing a famous victory in the capital for the young side from the tiny northern city.
Among the numerous impressive performances, Zinho Vanheusden was the pick of almost all of the punters, posting up incredible stats.
Winning every one of his defensive headers, on top of making 23 interceptions, Zinho’s dominant performance gave Cameron Carter-Vickers license to focus on first marking Petkovic, and then to focus entirely on not letting the Roma strike force get any clear touch on the ball in the box. The central defender also managed to keep his shorts clean, only needing to make a single tackle in the entire match.
The Rest of the Story
A look at the match stats shows a number of key team aspects to the performance, beyond the individual heroism many of the players displayed on the day. With a high percentage of shots on target, we were able to make the most of our chances, whilst restricting Roma to low-percentage efforts. Making the most of our opportunities to hold onto possession and work the ball into good areas was another key factor to your victory.
This is illustrated clearly by Roma’s shot analysis versus our own.
As you can see, we were able to work the ball inside the opposition’s penalty area far more often, whilst keeping Roma well out of our own – funnily enough, their shots almost look like there was some kind of diamond shape not allowing them into the area. Only one speculative effort from Roma came close to finding the net, whilst we used patient build up and a few fast breaks on the counter to make the most of our chances.
Two more screenshots help to paint a more complete picture of our defensive performance:
The second screenshot, showing AS Roma’s crosses, in particular highlights just how much the threat of Petkovic was neutralized, a player who, again, had never failed to score against us before this match. Our interceptions, on the other hand, highlight the fact that our defensive efforts weren’t limited just to our back six, but that the defensive phase started high up the pitch and was a complete team effort.
Phew. Well. I think that’s about everything I can pull out of one match with a tactic for you guys, I hope you enjoyed the story and the analysis behind this tactic, and if you have any questions or want to see attribute screenshots of some of the players then you can get in touch with me in the comments, via Steam (Vodka Hellstorm), or on the Football Manager Slack channel.
And hey, the last bit of good news? You can find the Defensive Diamond Strikerless tactic on the workshop right here: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=912476211
Written by Dan Kiraly – Slack: @DannyKjr.