Hey guys, how’s it going? Welcome to a brand new Monday Recap on the South American Journeyman. Sorry I’ve been away, it was a couple of messy weeks, with some personnal issues taking a toll and most importantly time away. Here things keep scalating on the COVID crisis front, sadly reaching and surpassing the 1000 cases per day landmark. Luckily we have it much better than other South American countries like Chile and Brazil.
On to merrier topics, the SAJ continues strong. After last weeks’ hiatus I must admit I felt a bit down on the whole Nacional but things picked up luckily, so let’s see what happened!
Amor a la Sudamericana
So, as you might remember, last episode ended on a real downer; after a crazy 14 days stretch with 5 matches remaining on the first half of the season, we lost out on the Uruguayan Apertura by the closest of margins after losing a title decider with Peñarol.
Our late season breakdown proved costly, we needed to pick up our pace and quick, else the board might have something to say about it…
After that, a simple 2-0 win against 15th placed Huracán del Paso was little consolation, but a surprise victory against Corinthians casted some light in our way. Thanks to those 3 points and Independiente’s draw vs. Sao Paulo, we had managed to finish 3rd in the group and therefore got a ticket to the Copa Sudamericana knockout stage. For those unaware of it, the Copa Sudamericana (once designed to be a sort of mini-Libertadores, played over the second half of the year as season filler) has transformed into a Europa League-type competition, for clubs a level below the Libertadores’ South American elite.
With the Torneo Intermedio being scheduled for the beginning of July, that meant the only 2 official matches left in my original 6 months contract were the home and away leg for the Sudamericana’s 2nd Round, vs. Deportivo Cuenca of Ecuador. It was a fun series where the team seemed to kick into gear, with a 4-0 trashing of the ecuatorian side at the Gran Parrque Central before a rather dull away leg which confirmed our progression to the next round.
The Sudamericana next to her big sis; with Nacional last continental title being won in the late 80s, it could be a great opportunity to claim some South American glory back for the tricolor
After that I was offered a contract extension, but the odd thing was I could only sign a contract with an expiring date in June, meaning my contract would end at the half-way point of whichever season it was going on. I talked to the guys at FM Uruguay and they told me that it’s probably a bug relating to a forgotten code line from when the Uruguayan FA changed the schedule from a July to May season in the european mould to a February to December season like other south american countries. In any case, I signed a year long extension, staying at Nacional at least until June 30th 2023.
Of a man, a team and a terrible preseason scheme
After that came the June break were no competition was taking place, as well as the winter transfer window. That gave me the chance to fix a few issues.
Firstly, it was a great opportunity to solve some of the tactical familiarity problems that haunted us ever since the beginning of the Apertura. I can’t claim complete innocence, as many of the struggles came from me trying to implement a system for which I lacked the right players, but the Nacional board signing me with less than a week until the opening match of the season surely made things worse. To fix this, I implemented a tactical preseason training schedule for the 3 full weeks I could work with the squad, in an attempt to have them fully learn the 5-2-1-2 that had carried us up to that point.
Then, it was the perfect opportunity to reinforce parts of the squad that had been failing, in a variety of ways. Some, like LWB Leandro Añasco, were totally unsuited for the task at hand; others, like RWB turned CM Oscar de Marcos were performing well enough but were making way to much money, and finally there were players like Alex Vázquez, who were useful and promising, but could easily be improved on. The transfer period’s objetives were then getting rid of sub-par players and reinforcing areas where we needed extra men. It soon became something else.
Let’s just say the invisible hand of the market decided to slap us in the face when we least expected it. Damn you, Adam Smith!
Firstly, a Gúzman Corujo-shaped hole was punched into the squad. My best defender had been in the sights of Mexican big dogs Morelia for a while, his quality way overdeserving his pultry €1.2M release clause. Being aware of this I tried to have him a sign a new deal with a much higher clause, but his agent wasn’t having any of it. Without much chance for a renegotiation, Morelia came in charging and put the cash on the table, which the board promptly accepted.
With that, the window changed from a period of adaptation to a period of emergency responses. Not letting the cash get comfortable in the safe, I went for venezuelan Nahuel Ferraresi. Really liked his mentals and physicals, and at 23yo looks like could be a long term replacement.
I continued on my merry way, trialing argentinians on expiring deals, signing a few, loaning out De Marcos to a side in the Czech Republic top tier, and a few youngsters to smaller sides in Uruguay, when the legend of the terrible release clause striked again, this time forcing us to kiss goodbye to our top player, creative midfielder Santiago Rodriguez. This one was a bit out of left field as not only was I not aware of Cruz Azul’s interest, but I had no clue he had such an easy to meet clause, only €2.3M. Alas, the board accepted the deal for me and that was the end of it.
This also threw a real spanner in the works as my makeshift preseason was meant to have players learn a tactic built around Rodriguez himself. It was once again back to the drawing board, using my Bielsa 2002 WC tactic. Inevitably, the point came when I asked myself “Why am I not using a Libero?”. It dawned on me that the players for whom I had relinquished that trademark of the Castoloball style, Trasante and Alonso, had not only been consistently two of the poorest performers in the team but also had done little progress when it came to growing into the position. Enough was enough I figured and casted them both into the depths of the reserves squad, instead opting to sign another centreback and using Ferraresi as the Libero. Trasante cried foul play and asked to be transfered. I agreed to every single bid that came for him but the board insisted they wanted €550k (about 4 times his value), so he had to stay.
In all, it was a fairly productive transfer window, with more than enough comings and goins and upgrades in the spots where we needed them.
My (inter)medium-sized uruguayan heart
In the middle of all that been taken care of, the Torneo Intermedio had arrived. We needed a good performance as our meager Apertura performance left us open to getting the sack. The tournament is played in a two groups of 8 teams, all versus all, with the winners of each group duking it out on a winner-takes-all final.
The first couple of matches didn’t go very good. A defeat vs. Wanderers and a draw at Liverpool de Montevideo left us langishing in 6th position on the Group B, and with a lot of ground to make up in order to catch forerunners Danubio. A couple of solid wins vs. Rentistas and Cerrito allowed us to climb back a few positions and get ready for the Sudamericana QFs.
We had drawn argentinian side San Martín de San Juan, a relatively approachable challenge that would allow us to gage whether or not we were up to the it. We beat them 3-0 at the Gran Parque Central and got through after a 0-0 draw in Argentina. We got colombian side Deportes Tolima in the quarters, which considering Santos, Mineiro and Peñarol themselves were in the posibilities, was a lucky draw.
In the midst of all that, a solid 2-0 win vs Danubio meant we were on a 3-team tie on the top between us, them and Montevideo Wanderers who dropped points against Liverpool de Montevideo. After that, a 2-0 vs Deportivo Maldona when Wanderders and Danubio drew 1-1 helped us take the lead with just one match remaining, which we saw out with a hard-fought win against Torque. A surprise Peñarol 2-2 draw with Deportivo Fénix meant we would be matching up against provincial side Tacuarembó. A fairly straightforward final saw us lift our first trophy as Nacional manager with a 3-1 win.
Whilst everyone in Uruguay would count that as title, FM is different. In FM land there’s only one Uruguayan champion. That does not mean our triumph goes without prize. Having finished with 16 points to Peñarol’s 13 means we’re now tied at the top of the Overall Table with 55 each. A good performance in the Clausura is all that stands between us and a trip to the overly complicated Campeonato Uruguayo final.
Until then, thanks for reading!