Blood&Blue – Season 2020/21 Review

Now that my “journey of a lifetime” series with Hearts has ended before it had really begun, I have been thinking about what I should do content-wise. I’ve got quite a few things planned out in terms of the tactics and guides, but could the blog work without the anchor of a series type-content? More importantly, did I want it to? I decided against it. The question then was whom I would manage. In the end, I came to the conclusion that it would be a bit unfair to keep this save, which has become my favourite thing about FM21, away from the blog.

What will these series be about?

Right around the time where the season one finale of my Hearts series went live, I found myself orphaned of a main FM21 save, as playing through what would become the end of season two I got unceremoniously sacked. What had been my side save, a game to play without thinking about content and screenshots, effectively became my main one: Royal Football Club de Liège.

Why have I been so enthralled by RFC Liège from the moment I learned about them? It’s hard to know. They have an interesting story and they are, to some degree, a fallen giant, but as cruel as it sounds… there are many clubs like them. If I have to put my finger on why I couldn’t help myself but manage them, it’s because in my mind they absolutely look like one of those clubs that would take the footballing hipster world by storm, playing some magnificent football on their way to losing a Europa League final to Sevilla and then be picked apart for parts the following season, inevitably falling into oblivion like Dnipro or worst, mediocrity like Middlesbrough. That might be an oddly specific way of looking at it, but it is what it is.

RFC Liège’s Stade Velodrome de Rocourt was once one of the prides of Belgian football.

So here we are, Blood and Blue, Les Sang et Marine. This will a different kind of series compared to the Hearts’ story-heavy narrative style. My intention is for this to be much more of a flowing, train-of-thought style text. I’m also way ahead of the entries in the game, so the first couple of parts will be a bit fuzzy and gut-feeling-like. We’ll see how it evolves as I doubt I’ll be able to play faster than I narrate but, hopefully, you’ll enjoy it.

Adaptability is an underrated quality

For a while now I’ve taken to recommending to set the New Game configuration screen so the first transfer window is shut. There are some arguments against it, most notably that you’ll be stuck with any weaknesses the squad presents at the beginning of the game; there are also some solid points for it, like for example you’ll be stuck with any weaknesses the squad presents at the beginning of the game and you’ll have to adapt to it.

Jokes aside, I think it helps (at least it helps me) making the beginning of each game less of an overwhelming experience. I used to treat the first transfer window like some sort of do or die moment where any mistakes or oversights on my behalf would come to haunt me for the rest of the season; if the window is closed, all you can do is shrug and carry on your merry way. It also helps to postpone the revamping mania present in every management game where you’re instantly compelled to move, change and tick all options until you have replaced every team member with a 0.12% better option. This way you’re given a squad and you play with that squad, with all its good and bad features, at least for a while. I’ve always gravitated to this playing style anyway, this just makes it easier to avoid the trap.

The first few hours of every save, always, forever.

Having done so for this save, lest I not follow my own advice, I found myself in a bit of a tight spot. My squad had a few useful midfielders and an interesting looking centre-forward, but little in the way of quality wide attacking players, or any wide attackers at all for the matter. That meant using any formation resembling a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 was going to be a long term project in the best of scenarios.

Since I had spent large chunks of my FM20 time using a back 3/5, and particularly doubting any of my centrebacks could play a convincing libero, I decided to go for a formation that I had hardly played in FM, a 4-1-2-1-2, perhaps better known as a 4-4-2 Diamond.

The tactic was designed to make the best of two of my best players, central midfielders Loic Besson and Nathan Rodes. Both were relatively talented CM/DMs with a nice passing range and decent mentals. I aimed to have one of them as a holding mid, while the other shuttles back and forth on the inside channel. Since I had little in the way of similar players, the right side of the diamond employed an AP-turned-Mez to offer some extra width and assistance to the attacking trinity of AM-S, DLF-S and AF.

My first attempt at a polyfunctional 4-4-2 Diamond

Instantly, however, I realized something wasn’t quite right. Particularly in the build-up phase, the team was bypassing the holding mid (who was playing as DLP-D) like a traffic cone and going for long balls into the hole created by the dropping DLF or the wide spaces found by the Wingbacks.

As such, amid an ungodly amount of tinkering, the first couple of months in our first campaign went by, with us playing a sort of vertical possession/long ball hybrid that was either largely ineffective if the opposition managed to defend against it or largely effective if they left gaps open. 

Around the mid-season point, I finally realized what was going wrong. Having used a BPD thanks to the odd quality of my centreback, I was effectively robbing the DLP-D of time on the ball; the centreback was almost always in more space and with a clearer view of the usual suspects since he didn’t receive with his back to the goal and was less likely to be pressured.

I had to look through some of my old players in an open DB I use for guides as they had retired. I didn’t recall them being so crap…

However, with some much needed reinforcements coming in the winter, particularly in the AMC position, I decided the best course of action was to shift the football-creation centre to the spot behind the forwards and leave the DM as a possession recycling position. A switch to a Half-Back and the return of the BPD did wonders to the consistency of our game, which catapulted us into the promotion spots.

A tale of two strikers

Part of that recovery was thanks to arguably the most important signing I’ve made so far, French Polynesian striker David Faupala. I was hesitant initially about getting him. For one, he looked like a jack-of-all-trades. Fast, but not lightning fast; tall, but not imperious in the air; skilled, but not really a passer or a dribbler. That type of skill set can make a team or backfire spectacularly. On the other hand, some of his intangibles were worrying, with reports suggesting he might be selfish, inconsistent and afraid of big matches. 

Still, he was the only solid option, and with our team in dire need of goals, I got him on board. He repaid that faith with 9 goals in 12 matches, enough to put him 2nd in our goalscoring charts. However, he shouldn’t have. For amid all the complaints about lack of quality players in a variety of positions, if there was one spot where we should’ve been covered, it was the striker.

The man in question.

Michel Lallemand was supposed to be our best player, and not even by a close margin. He was our second-highest earner, making almost twice as much as the third best-paid player (who for some bizarre reason was the second goalkeeper). And yet, few players have driven me to such despair as he has. Fast, with good technique and fantastic mentals for the division, he should’ve thrived as the leading man of the attack, with a decent sidekick on his side and good play-making behind him. Instead, what we got was a myriad of poor decisions, worse positioning and below standard performances all season round. 

It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t getting into goalscoring positions all that often (which could be my fault after all), but that he was bottling the ones he had; sending free headers off target like it was for fun and missing one on ones like it was FM20 all over again. I even checked (sometime later) his hidden attributes to see if there was an explanation to the horror, but other than a dread of big matches I found no glaring issues; unless he is a devout Cholista and considers every league match a key match, I can’t understand it. I’m sure he’s been fantastic for someone, but with me he just could not score.

Goalscoring duties fell to energetic but ultimately unskilled youngster Nick Efekia Mongo, with a less-than-dazzling rate of 14 goals in 29 matches. David Faupala might as well get a statue outside the ground.

The mini-league

If you’ve never played in the Eerste Nationale, Belgium’s third tier, I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a close, highly competitive league where you’re never too far away from turning a relegation scrap into a fight for promotion (and vice versa). With the bonus of being able to attract talent both from the lower echelons of the French and Dutch games, it’s a really fun league to play in. Unless you’re aiming for promotion that is…

The system used by the league to decide its sole promotion spot (and the title winner but who cares about that) is one dreamt by the demons who paint nightmares. The four best teams over a 28-game season move into a Playoff, which is actually a mini-league where they play each other a further 2 times. The weird thing is all teams carry forward about half the points they accrued over the regular season. If you’ve scored an odd number of points, tough luck, you’re getting one fewer. 

That means that dominant regular season displays can end up meaning nothing as was the case with promotion favourites KVK Tienen during my first season. They went into the “Playoffs” with an 11 points lead, but hit a bad patch of form and lost it to late-season bloomers Franc Borains.

We ourselves did quite alright, although promotion was always a distant possibility. Winning four and losing two, we ended up tied on points with heartbroken Tienen. If not for a 90th-minute meltdown vs. the league leaders themselves we could’ve had 2nd spot. Not that it makes any difference, the league doesn’t pay bonuses of any kind. However, with the system finally firing on all cylinders it looked like next season could be ours.

Until then, thanks for reading.

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