Once again into the fray we go with RFC Liege. When we left off the story, Les Sang et Marine had just achieved promotion after a spectacular run that propelled us into a playoff position. However, with a surprising promotion always comes a hard time the following season; how did we manage in the Belgian top tier? Let’s find out.
Debts & the unknown
After last season’s epics, it was hard to measure where we were as a club. We had a decent side but were hardly promotion favourites before the season started, with the press unoriginally reserving those spots for the recently relegated. Were we going to be good enough? Were we this good or just got lucky? Who could tell?
This presented two issues. On the one hand, it made it tremendously difficult to measure which economic commitments were going to be necessary. Was resigning any one of the several players that had their contracts about to finish necessary? Was it worth it?
Even worse, what should be our price cap for any prospective signings? After the experience of moving from the 3rd tier to the Second Division, I wasn’t expecting huge economic change to come. A quick check of the rules for the Belgian First Division, showed that any increase in revenue would have to come from our own means; there was no prize money other than for the winner (and even then it wasn’t the kind of money to keep a club alive).
Irrespective of that, I found it hard to spot potential signings. Somewhat disappointed at my scouting department’s work, I had decided to rework it after reading FM Rensie’s article on how he had set up his. However, the revamp hadn’t yet borne any fruits, meaning I had to navigate the club’s most important transfer window since this save started without much of a compass.
Since most of the players I came across were more or less at or below current first-team level, I decided on a “the captain sinks with his ship” policy. With no starting spots set to become available, I filled the gaps with the best our academy had to offer, most notably at both full-back substitutes.
However, if the economic benefits of becoming a First Division side were somewhat tenuous and hard to quantify, the drawbacks were quite clear. As part of the Eerste Klaase A requirements, clubs have to play their matches on 8000 capacity stadiums, with at least 5000 thousand seated spots; that, of course, far surpassed the hospitalities provided by our beloved Rocourt Stadium. So, quite like a few seasons ago, we had to move stadiums.
This time it would prove a far greater shuffle, as we could no longer expand Rocourt and play with a limited capacity for a while, or at least the board didn’t think so. Thus, a new stadium was planned, for which a €12m loan was requested. With Rocourt getting demolished, there was no grace period either, we had to find a new ground on loan. It ended up being KAS Eupen’s Kehrweg, some 35 km (or 21.8 miles) away from our home.
It’s not a panic buy if you’re sh*t
Our season, expectedly, started poorly. Despite a good run in the mandatory pre-season friendlies, a run of four straight league losses (including our debut at a Liège Derby vs Standard). Playing with pretty much the same setup as we had the previous season, we had stagnated.
At first, I decided to go for a small fix. It had been one such minor adjustment that had sent us on that run last season, so why not try it again? With our current pressing set-up looking okay (more on that later) and the side not really built to play a long-ball kind of game, I chose to aid game creation by moving from our 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. That provided a bit more defensive cover whilst moving our more creative players closer to the opposition’s box.
It was around this time as well that I decided to take advantage of the Belgian league’s rule that lets you register free signings at any point of the season and bolster a bit the team. As the season had progressed, more feasible options had arisen, but I was waiting to figure out if they’d be necessary or not. With projections looking like the club would finish the season somewhere in the €9m debt, I was hesitant to add any wages to the bill.
By that point, we were stuck at the bottom of the table. The tactical switch had only proved good enough to warrant a single win, vs Eupen of all sides. With little prospect of things improving on their own, I pulled the trigger.
Three players arrived, to improve key positions. Former Lyon academy French midfielder Titouan Thomas provided versatility and skill all along the spine of the team and offered a significant improvement on my available options. Danish veteran Bjarke Jacobsen was a more defensively sound alternative to play alongside the Frenchman, as well as an improvement on rotation options. Lastly, another Frenchman, striker Elias Filet, who had lit it up last season for Francs Borains and looked to be an improvement on a stuttering David Faupala.
With those adjustments and the fresh signings getting into rhythm after a few friendlies, we some solid form in late October and early November, picking up 13 points from a possible 15, and catapulting up the table to 10th position.
A tale of two matches
Of course, FM is as cruel a mistress as it has ever been, so that wasn’t the end of the misery. As quickly as we had shut up the ladder, we fell down, going into a 10-match winless streak from late November to late January. And I was pissed…
It wasn’t necessarily that we weren’t picking up points every week, but to whom we were losing those points. We had been blessed with a fairly easy relegation scrap after two of our rivals, KV Kortrijk and Lommel SK had decided to forget how to play football, managing to win just three of their matches up to that point, combined. And still, we had yet to beat them, losing 3-1 to Kortrijk and barely drawing 1-1 to Lommel, both times at home. Additional losses vs other bottom dwellers like OH Leuven and Royal Mouscron were getting intolerable.
The match after which I drew the line was that 3-1 vs KV Kortrijk. In the build-up to that match, and with our winning mini-run still fresh in the memory, I decided to move back to the 4-3-3. Simply put, it was one of the few matches in the season where we could go out and play like the favourites, dominate possession, score lots and basically have fun, but…
Very few times in this save had I had such a miserable time watching a match on FM. We looked like headless chickens, giving away possession in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways, and creating no chances or any danger. However, the thing that annoyed me the most was how easy it was for them, a side that had barely won a match in the season, to keep the ball, overrun our midfield trap, and just pass and move until a chance appeared. It was enough… I returned to the 4-2-3-1 (with little success) for the remaining matches until the mid-season break, and started plotting our return.
Now, I’ve always been a romantic in regards to how football should be played. I want attacking football, passing football, vertical football. “The only way to score is to play with the handbrake off”, said Wenger, and I agree. FM is a good cure for hopeless football romantics; I’ve certainly closed shop more often than I’d like to admit, simply because it’s harder to be idealistic when it’s your “job” that’s on the line. However, I try to stick to my principles as far as I can, so watching that dreadful demonstration when it was supposed to be the match that we could express ourselves the most was the last drop.
Out went caution, back came idealism; if we were gonna go down, at least we’d go down fighting. A return to the high press of our third division days was required; I was tired of watching my side conceded possession and drop back.
Stealing a page from Arrigo Sacchi’s book, I went to a 4-4-2, pushed up the lines and instilled a high press. We’d defend in close spaces, sit narrow to force the opposition outside and look to move the ball fast and with intent. Since I didn’t have any natural wide players, we stook with Inverted Wingers, with Wingbacks still providing width. This is what I settled for…
Early results didn’t give me much hope. A 0-1 defeat to Anderlecht away was probably closer than we deserved, and a 3-4 at home vs Cercle Brugge was entertaining, but not enough to keep us clear of promotion places. A 2-1 win away (but still at home) vs Eupen with two goals by Faups himself (two thirds of all goals he scored all season) gave us hope, but would it be enough?
After an expected 0-3 battering at the hands of Royal Antwerp, we visited Mouscron. They were falling to pieces by then, dropping like a stone from their hopeful early season form to the last spot. Still, we had only gotten 1 point from 9 against relegation candidates, and with just 4 points separating us from them, another loss would’ve made it a much closer race.
And yet, this was the anti-Kortrijk match. We looked dashing. We looked dominant. We looked asserted. Titouan Thomas was dominant from midfield as the DLP and we simply run them over. It was 3-1 at the and it could’ve been four or five. We got 20 shots, 11 on target and an xG of 2.88.
Much in the same way that I felt that awful 3-1 defeat could’ve meant the end for us, I felt like there was no way we got relegated after this performance. We didn’t become unstoppable from then onwards, not even close, but we didn’t look like a relegation candidate either. Apart from a dreadful March where we didn’t win any of our four matches (albeit facing three top-half sides), we picked up 18 points from the last 15 matches, more than enough to finish a comfortable 13th.
The next season is going to be key, I know that very well. Several of our key players have shown that they can’t cut it with big sides, some of them have been with me since the beginning of the save. With our new ground still another season away, it’ll be tricky from the economic standpoint (once again). I remain hopeful, however… we’ll see what the future brings.
Until then, thanks for reading