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Spirit of ’86 – Foundations


If you’ve ever struggled in life (and who hasn’t), whether it was economically, mentally, spiritually or else, you know how important it is to find one’s footing. Our time on Earth can very quickly turn into what feels like a never-ending drop if we don’t. Football is no different. Teams can fall, and fall, and fall when things don’t take shape. Minds become disorganized, mistrust breeds, and blame-shifting thrives. 

Failure is ever the orphan

That’s why when Michaël Asau told me his priority when taking over Vejle Boldklub was “guiding the team to find their footing”, I instantly understood what he meant. The Jutland outfit had become a bit of a yo-yo club in this modern era. Shifting sands don’t make for good groundwork. Now, with his first season behind him, it’s safe to say, said footing has been found. At least for now. You can never be too sure of anything when it comes to football. 

“For us, this first season was about getting to a safe place”, Asau told me when I interviewed him after the match. “The threat of relegation can cloud your judgement. We had to get to a position where we could then go and not have the worry on our minds. That meant perhaps taking a more pragmatic approach now, so we can move more aggressively later”.

Worry can lead the mind through dangerous paths…

He was able to build a side with a knack for simply battling on; Vejle proved smart enough to make the best of every possibility. Nowhere is this approach more clear than in Denis Kolinger’s season. The big Croatian centre-back was always going to prove a key piece of the side’s defence, but Asau took him to a new dimension offensively. With a number of set plays designed to make the most of his tall and strong frame (just under the two-metre mark), Kolinger thrived, finishing second on the scoring charts.

A solid Preliminary Round saw them finish, unexpectedly, in the Championship Group. It didn’t come easy, nor without some blunders along the way (a 5-0 defeat at the hands of FC Kobenhavn comes to mind). Asau’s side had never fallen below the all-important sixth place after October, but it never looked like a done deal. Things could’ve been more very different; three losses out of their five games post winter break (which included surprise losses to now-relegated Viborg FF and strugglers Aalborg BK) could’ve spelt a much different fate. However, they stuck around, and a win in the last match of the first round sealed qualification.

The title, of course, was far from reach, particularly with FC Kobenhavn in the form of their lives, but for a struggling side like Vejle, this meant two things: a bigger cut of the Prize Money, and a chance at European Qualification. Asau doesn’t look all too kindly on the final part of the season. “We faltered when we could’ve been better”, he laments. Allowing SønderjyskE to score a last-minute goal for a 1-1 draw was hard for a team that had completely outplayed one of the title contenders. Furthermore, drawing 0-0 with disappointing performances vs AGF and FC Nordsjaelland at home could have cost them, no doubt; it must sting as they won both fixtures away. And yet, when that final whistle came on the day of the European Places PlayOff against Odense BK, Michaël’s arms went up like a spring.

In their first season under the French manager, Vejle finished in a respectable fifth place, taking a spot in the second edition of the (poorly named) Europa Conference League. For a side that was highly favoured to get relegated, it’s quite the prize, and it vindicates the idea of focusing on a groundworks-building season.

Kolinger’s goal scoring record. When you consider he scored more than 1 in 3 shots he had, it’s even more remarkable

That’s not to say work hasn’t gone into developing Michaël’s project. “We’ve been working with our scouting department and the board to further our vision”, he explained. Signings like Mads Hansen, Jeppe Hogberg and Lucas Lykkegaard show us where Vejle is aiming. These are all young Danish players, with a lot of potential who can now experience continental football with Vejle. More importantly, each of them either takes or lines up to take the spot of a foreign grown player; this is the direction Asau wants to take his project. “Now we can continue to push down this course”, Asau adds, “This season was all about laying those foundations.”

Trent Crimm, for theangrylinesmen.

Tactical Withdrawal

Well, you probably thought I had dumped this one on the side of the road, right? Don’t, I haven’t; hopefully episodes can come along quicker now. It’s been a very busy month, both emotionally and working wise. Like our friend Trent here says, it’s vital to find one’s footing with things. Last episode we finished talking about tactics… or, more precisely, warning you that would be the main subject of this update. So, how did we play in our first season at the helm of Vejle Boldklub?

We talkin’ ’bout tactics man, tactics… not a game, not the game of football, but tactics man. We talkin’ ’bout tactics…

In choosing this save, as I mentioned, I wanted to adhere to a very specific style of play, with us looking to replicate Sepp Piontek’s Danish Dynamite in the game. However, when reviewing the players at my disposal, I saw that it wouldn’t be possible, at least not right away. As a recently promoted team, and one highly touted to go down, Vejle had a very pedestrian squad, with highlights of quality few and far between.

The high octane, no-fear style of Piontek’s side would’ve been a death sentence for a relegation-threatened side; even if it hadn’t, we simply didn’t have enough players with the technical capabilities to make it an effective style. So, going against my bielsista roots, I compromised.

The style I settled for was, as you can see, a fairly compact (and uninventive) 4-4-2, looking to win the ball back quickly for a counter or dropping a bit back for plan B. It was, originally, a bit more direct, but as the season progressed, I realized we could do a bit more damage with the ball. I also put together a less “rock-and-roll” version to switch to when we needed to close down matches.

It ended up working perfectly, producing plenty of chances on the counter, and favouring us getting Kolinger up for corners. Initially I was worried this was all just the near post corners exploit (though I did not set up corners with that in mind), but his aerial dominance stretched far after the issue was fixed. In fact, he leads EVERY aerial category in the league, both attacking and defending. The Croatian’s air dominance was simply uncontested.

This only means we’ll have to either bankrupt the club to keep him or se him leave rather soon, but let’s just enjoy the good times while they last.

Got the moves like Sepp

That’s not to say I wasn’t going to look at how to recreate Piontek’s style in FM…

Piontek’s side played in a 3-5-2, being one of the pioneers of the flat back three. Other formations had previously played with three defenders, like Catenaccio’s skewed 4-4-2 or the WM, but the back threes of the 80s were the first to use the setup of a libero and two stoppers centrally.

Piontek’s back three, with the stoppers getting wide to aid build up and stretch the opposition press.

They played an all-out attack system, made possible by the abundance of technically sharp players at Piontek’s disposal. Influences from Dutch Total Football and the pressing game of Lobanovski’s Dynamo sides, but they had their own personality.

Denmark’s pressing under Piontek wasn’t exactly manic…

As Jonathan Wilson notes in Inverting the Pyramid, “The biggest difference between the Danish and Dutch models, though, was less shape than style. While the attacking ethos and the focus on possession may have been similar, Denmark’s was far more of a dribbling game than the relentless passing of the Dutch”. The intelligence and technical brilliance of players like Frank Arnesen, Soren Lerby, Michael Laudrup or Preben Elkjaer overrode the passing pattern whenever the match required it.

They were also not afraid of playing on the counter, where Morten Olsen and Lerby’s long passing would put their attackers in situations where they could outmatch the opposition one on one.

As a system, Piontek’s side built from the back with the quality of libero Morten Olsen. Stoppers Soren Busk and Ivan Nielsen spread wide and pushed forwards almost like fullbacks at times, with Jens Jorn Bertelsen sweeping in front of them and holding the midfield when the defence was out of shape. Arnesen and one of Jesper Olsen or John Sivebaek would provide width, with the duo of Lerby and Klaus Berggreen adding dynamism in the centre. Up top, Michael Laudrup played off the much more physically imposing (yet still extremely talented) Preben Elkjaer.

In the end, I decided on this.

I feel it’s a good approximation on what can be imitated. It was set as a third tactic and it did not see any game time, so much thinkering could be required. For the time being, I don’t see us abandoning the 4-4-2 any time soon. I’m working with the B side to develop it, but that’s a matter for the next episode.

Until then, thanks for reading.

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