“The New Year’s Day game was a mess…” This was Jon Stead, Penny Stiles’ Assistant Manager, talking. Both were starting the tactical preparations for the most important game for the fan this year: the return leg of the North London Derby at the Emirates.
Penny started to revert to her favourite system due to monetary problems: a 3-5-2. She had to sell some big names just to keep the club afloat and, knowingly, decided to go for those she would have sold anyway: wingers. On the first day of January, she put that system on the pitch and it turned out to be the first loss of Arsenal this year. It was a severe loss at that: 0-3 at Everton’s grounds…
“I think that for this game in particular, despite everything else, we should go back to our 4-2-4… if only because it gave us so much success…” Penny said to him. The tone of her voice told Jon that the words tasted like vinegar.
Jon put the 4-2-4 tactical system on the main telly. As usual, during the tactical meetings, he was in charge of the equipment; she was the type of person who would get up and walk when she was thinking. Fifteen years of cooperation with her created a ruthless and very successful pair. With Villa, over 11 full seasons, after surviving relegation on their first months together, they won multiple PL championships, a few FA Cups and League Cups, a Europa League trophy and two Champions League trophies plus another final. They gathered a nice silverware case for sure. When she went to the Three Lions, he was her Ass Man again and they did well: getting a League of Nations’ trophy but getting ousted out of the World Cup in the semi-finals. Now, with Arsenal, they were at the top of the league with eight points in front of the second place holders: Manchester United. Tactically, she always was the defence-minded of the two. He always thought this came from the fact she was a former goalkeeper. He, on the other hand, was very offence minded, prone to taking risks… Since day one, she took him in for defining the tactical choices. Now, they were so complementary that often, both would complete each other’s assertions…
“Let’s start with our basic system then…” he said. “From back to front, we start with a low block where our defenders stay in place and the lateral defenders tucks in without pressing. We also have a rather low line of engagement, to compress the space between the midfield and the defenders. Our high-press is done by the advanced midfielders and one of our two strikers. The marking is zonal and we concentrate on cutting passing lanes…”
“I think it will be even more important to let them come deeper than usual on attack…” thought Penny out loud.
Jon scribbled one word on his pad before speaking: Bitch! “You want to play counter-attack even more than we usually do?”
“Yes and no… What I want is to shatter their spirit… I want the Spurs to spend time asking themselves how in hell they will be able to get a decent shot on goal… Make them doubt… Before hammering them into oblivion…” Tottenham was in 10th position on the table and she liked to see them there… but she wouldn’t mind seeing them being lower than that…
Jon smiled. “I see your point… May I suggest we get the defenders even higher then?” She saw his devious look. He knew she kept her best XI for this game, ready to lose the previous game to make sure her best players would be on the pitch against the Lilywhites. This included her two fastest central defenders who, with their good sense of anticipation and marking skills, could probably play an offside trap in a low block set-up.
“You’re too much into my head!”
Jon laughed! “You want them to force the issue or shoot from afar, aren’t you?”
Penny got up and went to the window, looking outside. Jon was used to her behaviour quirks… “I think I want to humiliate them! I want to completely deny them access to the box! But I think to get the defenders too high would be too aggressive; we know their forward and inside forwards are lightning-fast and they have good composure. On one-on-one’s situations, they might get the edge against Domingo… Even if he is among the best goalkeepers in the world, I still don’t want him to feel let down…”
Jon could have said the last sentence before she even did… “Alright, no change on the defenders’ line height; slightly higher it is. Do we change anything for the fullbacks?”
Penny turned toward Jon and started to walk back to her chair. “I think we’ll ask Jacob Sani, our left-back, to press even less, to firmly stay in place, since they tend to play on their right flank in the half-space area as Max showed. He should stay put and be prepared to go after Shigeyishy Sawada, their right back if it’s needed.” She sat down and took her pad, reading from it. “I thought to put the line of engagement a little lower though. Since Max told us that Josh Potts should be their main playmaker and that he plays as AMC, I want our midfielders to be closer to him…”
“You want to put Diego directly in charge of making his life difficult?”
Penny shook her head. “No, I prefer to cut the passing lanes instead. The one I’d want to keep a close eye on though is Dom Hewson, their box-to-box. My thinking was, on a defensive stance, to ask Francisco to mark the big man!”
Jon was surprised. “You really want our young Francisco Amo to mark Hewson?”
Penny nodded. “On the counter, who is our main passing asset to relaunch the play?”
“Diego!” answered Jon.
“Then I want Francisco to mark Hewson! We know he usually doesn’t roam laterally, this should make it easier for Francisco.” Jon, on the other side of the table was scribbling notes. “As for our advanced midfielders, I want them to press even more than usual. By compressing the lines even more, by lowering the Line of engagement and by reminding them not to counterpress when we lose the ball, they should force the lateral options. Zonal marking should be enough. Beside, Henrique Canastro and Jesus de la Torre are intelligent enough to know when to move and when not to move too deep…”
If there was one thing about what both the advanced midfielders got, Jon thought, was that as good as they were on the attack, they also were intelligent and good defensively. It was why she kept them and sold the other two… “And Leon, he presses as usual?”
Penny smiled. “You bet! He will be the only one to ever press before the Line of engagement…” Leon Smith was the best well rounded forward she ever knew! This young man came out of the Aston Villa Academy and she put him on the pitch as fast as she could. He was the one she trusted when it came down to harassing opponents on defence and then to sprint into action on offence… He wasn’t the best tackler; forwards never are anyway. But his work rate, his sense of anticipation and his decision making was making him a complete forward that could play on all axes on the pitch… and he was doing it willingly!
“Are we going to ask Moreno to come a little deeper this time?”
Penny shook her head while taking a sip of water. “Naw. We both know he needs to stay high…” Moreno Brambilla was an advanced forward. He was good in front, in the starting blocks…
Jon changed the display on the telly. It was now time to talk about offence. “I think we should avoid going through the centre. They will outnumber us anyway on transition because of their 4-2-3-1 formation.”
“I agree.” She changed page on her own pad. “I thought to play rapidly on the wings to create some momentum forward…”
“Do you want us to take advantage of their right flank since their right-back, Shigeyishy Sawada, tends to come forward a lot?”
“I think that if they have a long possession, it will organically create space…” Penny answered. “My thinking was to let the players decide which side to go to… as long as they go on the sides that is.”
Jon scribbled the comment while smiling. If there was something constant with Penny, was her tendency to offer the players leeway on the pitch. She once told him, ages ago, that she would give them “… all the rope they wanted… enough to hang themselves too!” “And on long possession in the opponents’ half?” he asked.
“As usual Jon… We play the crosses. Henrique and Jesus are good at making them and Leon and Moreno are tall enough to receive them… Besides, you know that at that point, Diego will be high up the pitch and he will go where he feels he have space to work… He’s a roaming playmaker and I think it will be our best bet; let him find the best space to work into… Henrique and Jesus don’t have the task to stay wide in possession and because of that, they usually end up inside the box at some point.”
When Jon was going back to his office, he looked at his watch. The meeting lasted a grand total of forty-five minutes. It was a little shorter than usual… He internally was smiling. Penny was always giving her players a lot of opportunities to think for themselves; she always has… Since he became her Assistant Manager with Villa, he saw that she never was one to define a ton of players’ instructions. She knew what the players were capable of and, in the end, except for some situations, like Shigeyishy Sawada or Dom Hewson, she would let the players express themselves. As he was thinking that, he cracked a smile…
You can follow my stories here: https://community.sigames.com/forum/23-fm-stories/ . I use the same name over there: Rien102. New material will come with FM20!