How’s it going, guys? Welcome to a new season review for the Blood & Blue. When we last left the action, we had scraped past a terrible run of form to survive another season in the Eerste Klasse B, Belgium’s second tier. With lessons learned both in economic and sporting terms, our third time at the merry-go-round was set to go. Were we to be promotion contenders or bottom feeders? Let’s find out…
Free signings and unknown quantities
Like I said last time, I finish the previous season feeling a bit between a rock and a hard place. Could we make a consistent push towards promotion? Should we? And most importantly, what if we didn’t get it? I was getting a bit tired of playing the same kinds of rivals and playing the same league. I was enjoying the save, but I wasn’t sure if a 4th season in the second tier was something I’d enjoy much.
For the first time since the save started, I entertained the possibility of leaving Liege, either to a new club or a new save. An offer to take on Heracles Almelo, who had just survived a relegation scrap of their own over at The Netherlands, arrived shortly after the end of the season and I took the interview. In the end, they went with someone else, and even then I don’t know what I would’ve done had a firm offer come my way, but it showed to me that I wasn’t as happy with Liege as I thought. Something had to be done.
The summer was quite busy. We once again relied on our kids to reel in the debt, selling a nice and comfortable €1.4 million. We also had captain Benjamin Van der Ackerveken (a name I struggled to pronounce/type every day since I started this save) leave us for free after he himself acknowledged that he wasn’t up to the standard of competition and opted to seek a new challenge.
On the signings side of the game, it was business as usual. Picking from the bargains bin, we started signing people on pre-contracts. The always reliable but ever ageing goalie Kevin Debaty was starting to show signs of regression, so Abdulnaraf Nurudeen joined in from KAS Eupen’s U21 to fight for the starting spot, as well as promising 18yo striker Benoît Verschueren who joined from Semi-Pro former third-tier rivals La Louvière Centre on account of his massive potential.
In order to bolster some of the gaps that had been exposed during the past season, we added Jacopo Gianelli, Mattéo Corduan and Lars de Blok from Inter, Angers and Feyenoord respectively; all more than useful, young midfielders, all on free transfers.
When all was said and done, I felt I had improved the team a lot and spent little to no money. The thing is it wasn’t a new sensation, so how much the team had actually improved and how much money it was gonna end up costing was, in reality, an unknown.
Unlike last time, however, pre-season went a lot smoother. Hardly world-conquering form, but we got a nice mix of beatings at the hands of bigger sides (our yearly gig as a punching bag for the big sides to bring cash) with solid wins vs more “approachable” teams. Even when the real football began we kept it going with a mixed bag. We were even alive in the cup, winning our first two matches. Two wins, a draw and a loss in the league for the first month and the season was looking like a nice, cushy mediocre year was ahead.
Then came the month of October, and four losses in four played, five if you include a friendly vs Utrecht. With our terrible run of last season still a recent memory, I decided things had to change.
From the beginning of the season, I had been experimenting with a few different shapes and ideas. I understood, as it’s logical, that the more competitive our environment became, the more the flaws in our current system would be exposed. Diamond 4-4-2s and 4-3-1-2s are setups I’ve got a fair bit of experience with, and I had noticed we had started to fall into some of its pitfalls, most notably the weakness to quick switch balls and overloads on the wings.
My two attempts at fixing this issue were, so to speak, variants on our main system. I was always interested in seeing how similar systems can shapeshift with just a few changes. DTG’s CrusaderTsar touched a bit on his 4-5-1 article, but I always been fascinated by how some formations seem to work as different iterations of the same idea, different variations on the same core principles.
That way, a 4-4-2 and turns into a 4-2-3-1 with a striker dropping and the wingers pushing forwards, a 4-1-4-1 becomes a 3-4-3 with the wingbacks advancing and the wingers cutting in, and a 4-3-3 shifts into a 3-2-2-3 (a classic WM) if the wide defenders push into midfield and the holding midfielder drops between the centrebacks. So what could we make of my 4-4-2 Diamond?
First, I looked at dropping the DM into the defence to play a back three with a Libero, which would offer further cover on the wide areas without disrupting too much the attacking phase.
On the other hand, a more radical modification looked to move the AMC into the striker position, looking to use him as false nine, whilst pushing the central strikers pairing into the wings to operate as inside forwards, cutting inside to score in the space vacated by the sole striker.
In the end, I decided on alternative number two, as it seemed to work better offensively and provide a stronger base defensively. That, combined with some changes in the way we defended, dropping the lines a bit to make it more of a midfield trap, seemed to do the trick.
“Seemed to do the trick” is a bit of an understatement though. Between October 10th, 2024 and March 23rd 2025 we won every league match but three, which we drew. By that point, we were comfortably in the second position, only behind a Zulte Waregem side that was running away with the league. Only four points behind though.
Regardless, that result did end our run and made a bit of a dent in our confidence, with another loss vs former promotion hopefuls KV Oostende. That made a direct promotion spot impossible to achieve, as Zulte, who had barely dropped points all season sealed their spot in the first division after our defeat. Had luck gone our way, we could’ve given them a run for it, as we beat them in the last matchday of the season, making the final gap just 5 points.
Even then I was quite happy. Considering I had started this season flirting with a move or a new save, this sudden promotion-seeking business was very welcomed. But it all hanged by the balance. Whilst the second division title gets you a ticket to the top tier, second place only gets you a promotion playoff and a whole lot of anxiety.
Given that I’ve had my fair share of heartbreak this FM cycle, I’d argue now that I was about as close to dropping everything as I was at any point during this season.
Having predicted that I wouldn’t manage to get the title (Zulte lost just three matches all season long), I had been checking the Eerste Klasse A table to see who’d be my challenger. Not much mystery in the end, as a loss in early April doomed Union Saint Gilloise to the playoffs. I didn’t know what to expect. Our performances against relegated sides had been… varied. Sweet wins, bitter defeats and bland draws had been accomplished all along the season.
We were visiting Union SG for the first of two legs just four days after our final league match. With knowing what to expect, I adjusted our training to try and improve our odds with Match Preparation and Set Piece drills. When the match came, I was simply hoping for a close result that allowed us to bring some hope home. A close 0-0 where our defence proved solid and our attack looked a bit toothless was promising.
The 2nd leg was that very week, so some rest and some preparation was issued and off we go. I could overhype the match but in truth, it was a fairly straight forwards affair, and I almost remember none of it cause I was on the edge of my seat for the entirety of it.
An early goal by whom else but Dave Faupala got us ahead and USG didn’t look like coming back. A second just a few minutes into the second half calmed my nerves. I was just waiting for the typical FM betrayal, but it never came. With a rather unceremonious 2-0 win we were crowned PlayOff winners and therefore a top tier team. I jumped around in my room.
That of course set off the alarms. Having not really planned for it, promotion now seemed as much a blessing as a curse. That, however, is a matter for another time. For now, we celebrate and wait to see where the pieces fall.
Until then, thanks for reading.