Changes & Progression

R24Shirt1Well, it’s time to kick off the second season of this Napoli save. Firstly, I would like to apologise in advance for the inconsistency of my saves lately, I know I’ve moved from save to save recently, but for the foreseeable future, I’ll be sticking with Napoli, and trying to defeat the behemoth that is Juventus, coming off their unbeaten season. If you remember the first season, I’d begun this save as a test save for some tactical experiments, and as a result had made mistakes – such as selling Gonzalo Higuain – that have made the save even more challenging. I’d also really struggled with my tactical setup, taking most of the season to get the 4-3-3 how I wanted it, and even then I wasn’t entirely sure. Furthermore, my strikers were having difficulty scoring, particularly my star signing Carlos Vela. All in all, it wasn’t great. However, we finished the season in 2nd place in the Scudetto, earning us a Champions League place, so at least there was clear progression in that respect. We just have to claw back 19 points of difference to Juve. This was going to be an important transfer window.

I’d identified our most important weaknesses as:

  • Centre Back – Éder Álvarez Balanta was solid, but Munoz took his time settling in, and Albiol was poor, averaging below 7.00.
  • A forward player. I was hoping this would be to replace Vela, but I couldn’t be certain.

I felt the midfield was perfect as it is, with Jorginho, Allan and Hamsik performing fantastically last season, and Valfidiori, El Kaddouri, de Guzman and Dezi more than capable as backups. Of course, I could improve here, but I want to keep recruitment logical and planned and give this save some longevity, and right now the midfield is our strongest area.

As you’ll know, the key for me was whether teams would be interested in the players I wanted to ship out (ideally), Vela and Gabbiadini. Well, it’s been a busy transfer window, and here’s our transfers out:

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As you can see, it’s been a biggie, and this doesn’t even include the amount of players I allowed to leave on free transfers after they came back from loans. Albiol, Gabbiadini, Vela, Ghoulam and Insigne – all first team players from last season – all gone. I did intend to retain some element of consistency into the second season of this save, but as so usual with Football Manager, the game just didn’t allow this.

The big European clubs have helped me a lot, and although this ‘out’ list would probably look like a horrific transfer window for many, I think it’s been a massive positive for Napoli, as it’s allowed me to mould the club into one that I really feel can challenge for the Scudetto this season. Spaniard Raul Albiol was happily shipped out to AC Milan after performing poorly throughout the first season – averaging below 7.00 – for £3.4M, and after that the offers and the money started to simply roll in. I then offered out Gabbiadini and received bids from PSG, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Madrid offered the most at £25.5M and off went Gabbiadini and his love of long shots. Then in came Barca for Carlos Vela – the player I had most wanted to sell – with an offer of around £27M. I negotiated up to £35M, making profit of £6.5M. Next came the sale of left back Faouzi Ghoulam to Manchester United for £11.75M. Ghoulam had been first choice left back throughout the first half of the season, but lost his place to the Croatian Strinic through the latter half. As a result I was more than happy to take this money, with Zuniga a more than capable backup for Serie A games. A few more sales and loans followed before Barca again came in for one of our players in Lorenzo Insigne just before the first game of the season. I negotiated a £21M initial fee that will eventually add up to £38M over the next several years through instalments. Armed with my initial budget and an added £107M amassed through these sales, I went out into the market, with the money burning a hole in my chequebook.

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So far less have come in than have gone out, but these are – with the exception of Saia who was signed by my DoF – all first team players, and all make our team much, much better. Berardi was my priority signing for the Summer, and although he didn’t come cheap at £35.5M, I feel he immediately makes our team better slotting into an attacking role. Berardi fits the second bullet point at the top of this update, in a forward player for our tactic. The second signing was Jose Gimenez from Atletico for £31M, another pricey signing, but an absolutely essential one. We sorely needed a top centre back – fitting the first bullet point – and I have every faith that Gimenez will go on to be one of the best centre backs in world football in a few years time. After Vela and Gabbiadini’s departures had been confirmed, I looked for another replacement in a forward position. I spotted the Brazilian Luan available at Chelsea for a fairly cut price £17-25M and jumped at the chance to sign him once an £18M fee had been negotiated. After Insigne was surprisingly signed by Barca, I decided yet another attacking player was needed, and after much deliberation, signed Thomas Lemar on deadline day from Monaco for £19.5M, a fee I already feel is an absolutely bargain.

You may have noticed that so far I’ve referred to ‘attackers’ rather than stating actual positions that the players will play in, and well, that’s because I’ve finally moved away from the 4-3-3.

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This was our pre-season, and I used the 4-3-3 extensively throughout. We started off well against Austria Wien and Ludogorets from Bulgaria, but it all ground to a halt when we played Dinamo Bucharest and Dinamo Zagreb. Performances were drab, and watching the games, it felt like the players were restricted by the tactic, and there simply wasn’t enough movement. It was far too easy to defend. At this point I decided it was time to switch to a new tactic, and created a 4-3-1-2 that I started the season with.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 23.07.49However, I’ve since moved to a 4-4-1-1, that is effectively a 4-2-3-1 when we have the ball. It’s a tweak on a tactic I’d started to develop with Newcastle, with a CM-D in central midfield now replaced by a DLP-D to allow for the creative talents of Jorginho. Hamsik usually sits next to him at CM-S, but he’s injured at the moment, so Allan is deputising for him.

The tactic is based on ball retention, but there is far more movement and speed than there was with the 4-3-3. Sometimes the 4-3-3 would play incredible football up until the opposition box, but would seem to be neutered once it got there. This is completely the opposite.

It is designed to get the best out of our attacking players, particularly the front 4 of Gabigol, Lemar, Luan and Berardi, a front 4 I think would rival any in Europe. Although Berardi and Luan play MR/L – and the game doesn’t rate them as comfortable there – they are in effect AMR/L’s, they just position themselves deeper when we’re defending, giving us the defensive strength I don’t believe the 4-2-3-1 formation has in game.

The real star of this formation and tactic is Thomas Lemar, who has been absolutely outstanding since joining from Monaco. In 4 games, he currently has 4 goals and 4 assists, a simply amazing return. I’m hoping that the AM-A from AMC can be developed to replicate the way that Antoine Griezmann plays the Number 10 role, moving into the hole, but then running beyond the striker. With wide movement from Berardi and Luan, with Gabigol upfront, this should in theory be almost unplayable for opposition defences.

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So far, it’s proved to be that way. I’m currently writing this update towards the end of September, and we’ve played six league games, along with one game in the Champions League, with this tactic being used from the second half.  It’s early doors, but we finally seem to have made the progress that I’ve been waiting for, it just required the change around of a few players, and to finally admit that the 4-3-3 wasn’t working. We’re now ahead of Juventus – who themselves lost Dybala, but have signed Depay, Widmer and Jese – and hopefully I can really challenge Juve this season, if not defeat them.

This article is also going to be the first of a new updating format that I’m trying. I’m hoping to move towards shorter more regular updates in order to produce content that you will all hopefully like. I don’t know if the updates will be monthly or bi-monthly at this point, but I hope that it will allow you to engage with the narrative and story of the save more if you see the progression from month to month, rather than simply reading an update twice a season, when I’ve solved any issues or problems. This change is highly influenced by @ilmedianofm, who runs a fantastic blog that you really should check out. This move to shorter updates appears to be something that is moving across blogs in the FM scene, and it’s a move I support, and I’m extremely excited by the possibilities it creates. I welcome any feedback when the new format gets going.

So until then – likely not long – thank you very much for reading, and as always with The Tactical Annals, if you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section of this blog, or contact me via Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again, and FORZA NAPOLI!

There’s Work To Do

1150Well, I’ve now reached the end of the first season with Napoli, a season that has taken me a long time to get through because of choosing to write about other saves before finally deciding this was too much of a challenge not to write about. So, it’s time to update you all on how the season ended, and cover what’s going to happen in the South of Italy moving forward.

In the first update, I covered the early decisions, or mistakes, that I’d made, particularly the sale of star striker Gonzalo Higuain and the signing of various talented players such as Carlos Vela, Ezequiel Munoz and Gabriel Barbosa, some that have worked out, and some that have not. However, I’ll cover that later in the update, when I outline my plans for the coming second season, and plan how I’m going to mould the squad moving forward. One thing I will discuss now is why I decided to sell Higuain and signed Vela, as my good friend and FM YouTuber @StatisticalApp identified I hadn’t really covered this in the first post.

The theory behind it was that I was committing to the 4-3-3 formation (as you’ve seen that I have stuck to all season, albeit with many, many tweaks), and I wanted a striker that dropped deep to create space for the wide players to exploit. In this role, I wanted more of a ‘Messi-type’ player in this role, that was creative and diminutive, that could drop deep and pass or dribble. Higuain just isn’t that type of player. He’s a fantastic striker and can drop off the front line, but I just didn’t feel that he’d give me what I wanted. I wanted more of a False 9 than a Deep-Lying Forward. In theory, Vela should have been fantastic, but as you know from the last update, this really hasn’t been the case.

In future posts or articles, if I miss out any information that you wish to ask me, please always feel free to ask me, you can always contact me via the usual channels on this blog or via Twitter. Anyway, moving back to matters with Napoli, how did we finish in Serie A, the only tournament we were still involved in?

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Well, we retained our position in Serie A and finished the season in 2nd place, securing Champions League football next season. The 6 point gap to Inter somewhat belies how comfortably we finished 2nd, as it was only a 3 point gap going into the final day, and Inter lost to Udinese, and we put on one of our best performances at the San Siro against Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan (yes, he’s returned), leaving Milan with a 2-0 win.

Just look at Juve though. Unbeaten all season. I’ve never seen an AI managed side do that (that I can remember) in all my time playing Football Manager. They were so much better than everyone else in the league (including us) that it wasn’t even fair. We did far better in our second league game against them, only losing 2-0, but the sheer gulf in quality (in Dybala alone) was evident. Cuadrado can be terrifying on the wing, and defensively, they’re rock solid. A 19 point gap from Juve in first to us in second is absolutely huge, and undoubtedly reflects the difference in quality this season.

I don’t actually feel our season has been that bad really, it just looks it in comparison to Juve’s unbeaten season. Juve are unlikely to do that next year, and with some improvements and tactical developments, we’ll be much closer to them next year. Those I’ve spoken to who have played in Italy this year have told me similar things happened in their first season, so it’s now down to me to claw back the 19 point difference in quality.

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I usually do a top players of the season, but with the way this season has gone, I don’t really feel it’s fitting to select a top 3. As harsh as it might seem, no player has been consistently fantastic for the whole season like Ayoze Perez was in my Newcastle save. The only player I could really say has been consistently good all the way through the season is club captain Marek Hamsik. At the age of 28, he shows no sign of declining, and I’ve rewarded him with a new contract until 2020. As much as I want to take Napoli back to the pinnacle of Serie A, I’d really like to do it with Hamsik leading the team – and indeed, the midfield.

However, it really is time to let this season go, and move on and look forward to next season. Tactically, I intend to stick with the 4-3-3 formation. I spent so much of the season tweaking it and working on it to get it right, that I feel quite attached to it, and the save wouldn’t have quite the same draw for me now if I moved away from it and perhaps to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-1-4-1.

Moving forward though, I have some big decisions to make regarding the first team, especially the front 3. Gabigol proved throughout the latter part of the season that he was going to be a key part of this team in future years, managing to win the Serie A Young Player of the Year award despite only arriving in January. Although his improvement in form has yet to show in his ‘goals scored’ column, his performances from the inside forward role on the right have been absolutely fantastic, and out of the 3, his position is the most secure.

Insigne’s however, is a little more shaky. He’s averaged a solid 7.41 for the season, and is our top scorer with 14 goals, however he’s hardly been consistent in scoring those 14. I felt he would be lethal in the IF-A role from the left wing, cutting in on his strong foot, but he was so inconsistent there that I have been playing him upfront over the last few games of the season, and his performances have been better there. He was also voted as Serie A’s midfielder of the year above Paul Pogba, which astounds me quite frankly as I don’t believe he’s been anywhere near that good.

The main issue is Carlos Vela. I signed Vela in the first transfer window for £28.5M, and as a result, I really wanted to make this transfer work. He was effective – in terms of rating – when I used him on the right as an AP-S, but he wasn’t making a noticeable difference to games like Barbosa does on that flank. I’ve tried to make it work with Vela upfront, but despite him (for me) suiting the False 9 role perfectly, he just doesn’t seem to be able to affect games there in the way I would like him to. Furthermore, his last few performances this season were not good, with a 7.0 being his best performance. When that is compared to Barbosa – who was causing havoc from the right – and Insigne – who was scoring goals from the F9 role – it doesn’t provide me with a lot of confidence in Vela. He averaged 7.24 for the season, but I really do feel that this is a bit of a lie. I would be sorely tempted to cash in on Vela and bring in a replacement such as Domenico Berardi, but I’m not getting a lot of interest in Vela when I’m throwing price tags around the market. I would rather not make a loss on Vela, but if that loss still allows me to bring in Berardi, it will be worth it in the long run. I also have to consider the future of Manolo Gabbiadini, who was our top scorer for a while, but doesn’t fit our possession focused style of play with his love of shooting from distance. If I can, I’ll cash in here.

Defensively, I also feel we can improve. Balanta’s performances improved throughout the season, and he ended the season with a 7.09 rating, not fantastic, but certainly our best. January signing Ezequiel Munoz ended the season with a 7.00 rating, but his last few games were rated at 6.92, well below what I was expecting. Albiol hasn’t averaged above 7.00 for the entire season, and with him now breaking the 30 year old mark, I’m strongly considering selling him and bringing in another centre back, hopefully one thatr01suit3 will perform well next to Balanta. Ideally, I’d like Munoz to push on next season and retain his position in the starting lineup, but I can’t be certain of that.

The next update is certainly going to be a big one for the future of this save. I’m going to cover the Summer transfer window, and the decisions I’ve made, as well as some early results. Hopefully I can improve the side through the Summer, and challenge for the Scudetto next season as well as doing well in Europe. Until then, thank you very much for reading, and if you have any questions regarding this save, or Football Manager in general, please feel free to ask via the comments section or on Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again. FORZA NAPOLI!

When Things Don’t Go To Plan

R01Suit3By and large, the saves you read about on FM blogs and watch on YouTube and Twitch all tend to go well. The managers make the correct decisions, buy the correct players, and things click tactically, allowing for a successful first season. The perfect example of this is my Newcastle save. I identified the weakest points in the team, being both full back positions, central midfield and Number 10, and bought accordingly to fit into my 4-4-1-1. The 4-4-1-1 itself worked fantastically, and took me to the title in my first season, giving me instant success and gratification. However, this isn’t always a good thing. As many FM players will tell you, half of the fun of a save is the challenge and the struggle. As good as it was winning the title in the first season, I’d basically achieved in 1 game year what I felt it would have taken 3 or 4. Of course I then had the Champions League, but the challenge itself severely diminished, and therefore, so did my motivation to play the save itself.

All this pushed me back towards an older save on FM16, a save I never chose to write about on this blog. It was a tester save for FM16, a save for me to ease into the new game and figure things out tactically. However, it’s become my biggest challenge thus far, and it’s for this reason that I’m going to start writing about it. It will show you that I don’t just simply effortlessly win in all my saves. This save has really become a struggle, and has provided me with a challenge that the Newcastle save never really did. So first off, who is the save actually with?

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In case you don’t recognise it, this is the Stadio San Paolo. For those of you that haven’t guessed, I’m managing Napoli in Serie A. Anyone that has watched Napoli this season (and annoyingly seeing them lose to Juve the other night) will verify that they’ve become a fantastic team to watch under new coach Maurizio Sarri, and are far more interesting tactically than they were under Rafa Benitez. For this reason (and after reading @FMAnalysis’ excellent tactical analysis of Napoli this season for These Football Times), I decided this would be a good test save to get me going. What’s more, I’ve loved Serie A since I was a child (I often say I’ve watched more Serie A than any other league growing up, spending my weekends watching Gazzetta on Channel 4), and I always love playing in Italy on FM.

Because it was a test save, I perhaps haven’t thought through the decisions I’ve made quite as much, and have wavered from my usual ‘formula’ regarding transfers. As a result, I’ve made mistakes which have made this save fascinating for me, and well worth writing about. So, let’s cover those mistakes, and what I’ve done so far (I’m about 2/3 through the first season, so I’ll update until this point, and then cover the end of the season in the next update). Let’s look at transfers first.

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Firstly, I sold Dries Mertens to Man United for £14.75M. I didn’t see him as part of my plans, and there’s a fair amount of future transfer fee added onto the end of the nearly £15M. I don’t consider this transfer a mistake. I then sold centre back Kalidou Koulibaly to Liverpool for £11.5M, and this I do consider somewhat of a mistake. We’ve been weak at centre back all season long, with poor performances from all my centre backs holding the team back. Koulibaly hasn’t exactly set the Premier League on fire with only 3 appearances for Liverpool, but I still feel he could have done a good job for us. The sales of Henrique and David Lopez were simply sales of players who like Mertens, were not going to feature much in my plans, and were squad players taking up wage budget, and were sold for more than I felt they were worth.

Then I sold Higuain to Arsenal for £25M. This has certainly proved to be a mistake. We’ve struggled to score goals all season, particularly from the striker position. Everyone that’s played there just hasn’t scored, through a combination of tactical issues and bad form. Higuain has since gone on to be shortlisted for the Ballon D’Or. Whoops. Although I sold him with good intentions (to fund a signing you’ll see soon), this has really affected our season. These sales also left us weak in particular areas (when we suffered a horrific injury crisis), meaning the January window was spend rectifying these mistakes, and re-bolstering the squad with quality (quality that has taken time to settle).

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So, here are the signings I’ve made, and again, there are some mistakes here. I replaced Koulibaly with Eder Alvarez Balanta, someone who I never signed on FM15, and I decided to see what he was like on FM16. He’s been decent, if not spectacular, and the best of our central defenders, but the recent form of all my defenders has been poor. I then signed Carlos Vela as the replacement for Higuain, wanting to use him as a creative lone striker, dropping deep and creating for midfield runners. This hasn’t really worked for most of the season, and Vela has been in and out of form, causing me to move him away from the striker position. Only in recent games has he started to play well there. Maleh was bought by my Director of Football.

With an injury crisis in the winger/striker position (Vela was still in and out of form, and Gabbiadini has the dreaded ‘Shoots from Distance’ PPM), I then signed wonderkid and FM star Gabriel Barbosa (who I only briefly managed on FM15) from Santos in January. A foolproof plan right? No. Barbosa has struggled to settle in (I was initially playing him upfront), and he’s only now starting to show form from the right wing, scoring his first goal for the club in February. Fortunately it looks as if his settling in period is over, but a lack of goals from our star January signing was not what was needed, and only further compounded my problems upfront. I also signed another centre back in Ezequiel Munoz from Genoa, and he’s averaging below 7 so far, not the return I wanted. Duelund was another DoF signing.

I’ve also really struggled with this save from a tactical standpoint, and I have very little doubt that it has contributed to our (at best) spotty form. I’ve played 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, a narrow 4-2-1-2-1 and a diamond and none of it has really clicked. Something’s been missing all season, and it has really hindered our performances. There’s been little cutting edge to our forward play, and when you combine that with the poor form of our forward players, that’s a bad recipe. We’re actually second in the league in terms of goals scored, but we’re a long way behind Juventus, and the main source of goals has been Gabbiadini with 11, but he regularly hijacks our play with his love of shooting from distance. We’ve had a lot of 1-0’s.

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However, things appear to have finally clicked over the last few games, and this on the left is what I’m currently using. The switch of Gabigol to the right and Vela back upfront appears to have worked wonders, unleashing Barbosa, allowing him to cut inside from the right wing, and the combination of the front 3 has started to really work well with Vela actually using his creative instincts, as I always hoped he would. Insigne has been quiet all season in the vital IF-A role, but has finally found his goalscoring boots over the last few games, and my faith in him is returning.

It’s a 4-3-3 very much in the Pep Guardiola mould of how to play football, a philosophy I’ve subscribed to for a long time now. We aim to keep the ball, draw the opposition out of their defensive shape (most teams in Serie A do try to sit back and counter us the majority of the time), rotate the ball around before finding the gaps and exploiting them. It’s a mix of Pep’s Barca and Luis Enrique’s Barca in terms of the roles selected, and it plays a similar brand of football, although with a lower tempo than both of those great sides.

It’s still developing of course, but this is the closest to being happy with it I’ve been. I finally appear to be getting penetration from the wide players through the False 9 dropping deep, and the midfield works like a dream. The tactic itself has always played lovely possession football between the boxes, but when we get there we’ve just been impotent at best. With the move of the striker to a False 9 rather than a DLF-S, this appears to have changed.

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In terms of how we’re doing in Serie A, this is where we stand after 24 games. Juve are miles out in front with an unbeaten record, and went through the first 14 or 15 games without even drawing. When we played them the gulf in quality at that point was evident, as Allegri’s side tore us to shreds defensively, leaving with a 4-1 win. We’re currently in the run up to the return fixture at the San Paolo, and I hope we can give a better account of ourselves this time. However, anyone that has played against Juve on this year’s version will verify how good they are, particularly Dybala. You can see that the league is almost over, and barring a really poor run of form, it looks like we’re going to finish as runners up this season, but a long way behind Juve. Still, considering the catalogue of mistakes I’ve made this season, I’m extremely happy to be in the position we’re in. Had things clicked sooner, I’m sure we’d be a lot closer to Juve than we are.

We’re only also fighting on one front, having been beaten 2-1 by Juve in the Quarter Finals of the Coppa Italia, and failing to even qualify from our Europa League group, after a series of quite honestly shocking performances against sides we should have beaten like Saint-Etienne and AZ Alkmaar. Still, it’s allowed us to focus on Serie A, and alleviated the pressure that the injury crisis (de Guzman went out with damaged cruciate ligaments, Callejon was out for several months and Maggio is currently out for over a month) caused.

1150At this point, all I want is a strong end to the season, giving me some optimism for the coming second year, and to get to the transfer window, to allow me to further rectify the mistakes I’ve made. We still need to strengthen at centre back, we could do with a better full back on either side, we need more support out wide, and I’m sorely tempted to cash in on Gabbiadini in order to bring in a cheaper backup False 9, and improve the squad players here and there. There aren’t any good Bosman options out there, so I’ll see what’s available when the window opens and the transfer list market develops.

However, until the end of the season (which shouldn’t be long), thank very much for reading, and I hope you enjoy reading this save, as I recover from the mistakes I’ve made early on. It just goes to show that us bloggers or YouTubers aren’t all perfect with how we play the game, and you’ll see over the coming few posts the challenges I’ll face. What I’m loving about this save is how I actually have a challenge, and it’s a huge one called Juventus. Thank you for reading again, and as always if you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section, or contact me via Twitter (@JLAspey).