Crowned champions ofthe Serie A on the final day, our win against Bologna would be Joe Hart’s last game. We had to depend on a player who wasn’t going to be on loan. If we were to plan for the future, then we needed to win with a solid squad. Out tactic on the last day was fairly simple, it was still the same 4312. By now we had an assured line-up so all I had to worry about was my trident attack up front. Something still didn’t sit right with me
To play a 4312 well, you absolutely need to control 3 zones on the pitch. So we set about planning for how we would set the team up. We still hadn’t sorted out the attack patterns yet, but my plan was simple. If you want to win the ball you need to do it in specific areas of the pitch when you attack. And if you lose the ball there while attacking, you’re toast. So the zones encircled in yellow were my hot zones. I had to make sure if a ball was lost there, we needed to win it back at all costs. This meant a near perfect player selection each time. One mistake and I would see it falling apart. The system was set up to take advantage of the fact that we had a hardworking team but not everyone was like that. I counted only 12 players who fit the bill for my style of play. So it was time to look at their player preferred moves to see what else needed to be added to the mix.
Some of them had the ability to drop deep, we would need that. Other’s didn’t dive into tackles, there were almost a certainty to join the list. I hunted around for the one-two passers and the players who could get forward and move into channels. These boys would be vital for the upfront mobility I was looking to generate. Finally the roles. This was an area of the game I knew my team still struggled with but if they were determined to succeed then they would need to see out their training sessions. I kept a sharp eye out for those who were making the grade and those who adapted to my style of positional training. If they wanted to play in my team they would have to play in the positions I wanted them to. It took a year, but Puci finally accepted the fact that he needed to dual-hat as an attacking midfielder and a striker.
We had sorted the roles out, now the hard grind was going to start. Every match was an exercise in observation. I needed to make sure that my 11 were the best. But as our first season rolled on, it became increasingly difficult to tell. I focused on my grids, if their roles demanded they cover and they didn’t then I had to analyse to see whether I had picked the player based on the wrong attributes or whether I had made a mistake with the roles. Funny thing is, I know it wasn’t the roles, they were nearly perfectly balanced. The problem was in some of the duties, and picking the right kind of player. The single biggest contributing factor to underperformance is choosing the wrong player for the task. Get that right and if your team fails to win on the day, then its on your head.
It took us a season, and I still wasn’t convinced we had the right players to play my style of football. I wanted them to press in key areas of the pitch, I wanted them to be able to drop deep when I needed them and push up high. Our defensive line was a mobile one, and our mentality was like a gear stick in a Ferrari sports car. Playing my way required player concentration at levels they had never been accustomed to. We came to the end of the season, and I knew we were still a few players short. but with only 5 million in the bank, the 60 million Bayern lured in front of us was too good an offer to pass up. With the money we added 6 to the roster. Andrea Poli from AC Milan who was a bargain at 6million, for a player valued at 16m. Giuseppe de Luca, one for the future, Aissa Mandi, an unheard of defender, who’s attributes promised something else. Along with that lot we added Rodrigo de Paul, Christian Ramos and Ze Gomes.
Preseason of Season 2 was now underway and we would need to plan things right. I needed to test things out so we went off on a run of using quite a few formations. Each formation was used to test something out in our plans. We needed to test the Counter Pressing system to find out which shape worked, and guess what we won nearly every match, bar two. Our system was a simple one, sometimes our roles made no sense, but if you study each shape carefully, there is a kind of logic in how each one controls space. As long as your tactic controls space, the only thing holding you back is your individual settings. The first step in any solid tactic is Player Selection and Roles, you can use any tactic in the world and win with it, almost any. If you don’t select the right man for the job you are going to fail each and every time. By the time my experimentation was done, we were knee deep into our second season and our results started to show. Against Bologna we were more keen on shutting out any good chances and working on preventing counter attacks, we could worry about possession later. I wanted my team to get used to me shifting the Defensive Line, and using it to strangle lone forward systems. If you can isolate their strike force when they launch an attack, and they need for players to come up in support. You know its a structured system. And that is their weakness. Isolation. So my wolfpack jumped on them. They did manage to get some possession in the middle of the pitch. I needed to find out more.
Against Napoli I chose the wrong system and we were immediately on the back foot. This time I had no choice I had to isolate my own defence and switch the battle to midfield. This was one time I was grateful for working on set pieces. You never know when paying to a set-piece routine will save your day. By the time we met Roma, we were beginning to master the art of pressing them to prevent counter attacks. They only real thing missing was hitting them pack with our own counter. In a counter press, you need to win back possession, when you lose it, just when the opposition is about to launch a counter. That way you break them up. The only difference is what you do with the ball. We still hadn’t perfected that yet, but we getting better at holding them at bay.
By the time we played our matches against Shakhtar, the big match which I had nearly spent half of our second season preparing for was looming. Time was running out. I had to iron out our form of Counter Pressing. Real Madrid were next, and then it all came together as our first leg away turned into a master class of possession. We made sure each time we lost the ball we could do something with it, it’s a pity our strikers were poor. In spite of Madrid’s formidable attacking prowess, they failed to generate a single counter attack against us the whole match. They may have won the possession but we shared the spoils. They would come to us next and this time, we pressed and denied them and emerged with all 3 points. Madrid were stunned
Counter Press at work
When we lost the ball in their half on the attack, it opened ourselves up to the counter as they played the ball to Ronaldo, he finds out quickly how fast space can go. In the second leg we repeated the feat, this time we managed to score. Our Counter Pressing system was beginning to work, but the goals, they were taking a while. My only concern now was going to be my players. Could they keep this up for a whole season?