un’estate italiana / chapter one

“Come inside, I’ll show you something you’ve never seen before”, said the old man I was interviewing. The year is 1997 and I’m in the town of Las Acequias, just under 40 km away from the city of Rio Cuarto, in Argentina. The old man invited me to his home, asked me to sit down on a worn-out leather couch, and went to set up a VCR and TV. The video he played was that of an under-13 game; the footage looked somewhat professionally recorded, and it followed the dribbling and scoring of one of the kids. “This isn’t it”, he said, and proceeded to fast forward until the image cut, and the video transitioned to a much more grainy, amateurish home recording.

In it, the same kid stood under what looked to be an orange tree. The person filming suddenly tossed the kid an orange, which he elegantly killed with his tight and started juggling with his feet. So far, so good, but a few moments later the off-camera hand threw another one. Unphased, the kid gave the one he had a higher kick, killed the new orange, and started juggling both; Then, a third orange appeared, and the same happened. By the time a fourth orange showed up ruined the trick, I simply could not believe what I had just seen.

Irreparable damage

“I remember that day”, told me much later Serafín Vázquez, the kid in that video, when I showed him the copy I own. His grandfather begrudgingly allowed me to make one after I promised I wouldn’t distribute it freely. “I worked on it for… months, years to make that work. It started when el Nono [an Argentine colloquialism for grandfather] caught me juggling an orange that had just fallen from the tree and ruined my concentration by throwing me another. So I thought ‘Well if I can juggle two I’ll beat him…’ and then I went on”. 

The Argentina team at the U20 World Cup in Malaysia. Vázquez was supposed to be part of that

Out of the around 140,000 full games and clips in my video collection, those two minutes of grainy, homemade film are my favourite. I found them while doing an investigation on the player many believed to be the next Maradona, way before Lionel Messi showed up. Serafín Vázquez had just enamoured the world with his performances in the 1997 South American U-20 Championship, the tournament that gave passage to that year’s U20 World Cup in Malaysia. Vázquez was supposed to be the leader of that team until a knee injury playing for the Instituto de Córdoba youth side made him unavailable. While Juan Román Riquelme, Pablo Aimar and Esteban Cambiasso showed Argentina that there was a future after Maradona, Vázquez watched from the sidelines.

The injury left him with irreparable damage to his left meniscus, which robbed him of much of the physical qualities that made him a mercurial talent. AC Milan would take a chance on him thanks to his agent, although mainly based on the player he used to be, not the player he was. From there, he dropped to the levels until deciding to return to Cordoba to carve a decent enough career with a number of lower leagues Argentinian sides. “I don’t look back on it with sadness”, Vázquez explains, “It was not the career I had dreamed of, but I was lucky to still get to live doing what I love doing. Deep inside I’m still that kid juggling oranges. I love football, so I’m happy to play football and work in football regardless, with Champions League Final balls or with oranges in my backyard”. Perhaps that’s why Serafín Vázquez took the Parma job.

Parma have long been the dying old man of Italian football, far more so than the likes of Sampdoria, Genoa or Torino. UEFA Cup winners long ago, they’ve now struggled to exist, let alone compete at the highest level in recent years. “When I heard the opportunity was available I knew I wanted it, I must’ve mailed [Parma directors] Luca [Martines] and Julien [Fournier] a million times. In the end, I think they just decided that I was better to hear from than to continue ignoring”, explained Vázquez. His experience up to that point had been somewhat limited. A stint under José Pekerman in Colombia, the man who had taken him to the Argentina U20 national team, as a coach was followed by some work with youth sides in his country, but nothing close to suggesting he would be up for a post in a world-famous, European-silverware winning team. “I think they just liked my ideas”, he answered simply when I asked him about the matter.

Parma Calcio’s 2021-22 season proved a struggle

In the end, that’s probably the reason I’m here: Serafín Vázquez’ ideas have proved to be very good. Going into the 2022-23 season they were among the candidates to get promoted but it was far from a given fact. Their 2020-21 season in Serie A proved a disaster, getting relegated some 17 points away from salvation, and they would follow up that struggling to get past mid table in their first attempt at a return the following season. With top-tier usuals such as Genoa and Cagliari bidding for a quick return to Serie A, they were far from favourites. “I guess we never really considered it… whether we were favourites or not. We knew we wanted to get promoted, and we worked towards that”. After so many blows and disillusions it seemed very much like Parma was another with “irreparable damage”, but as it would soon be apparent, Vázquez is quite the efficient surgeon.

Tobiáš Vacík, for theangrylinesmen

Numbers & Kill your darlings

Hello and welcome to chapter one. I’m sorry it’s taken this long, there’s this pesky thing going on called the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup and apparently as a sports journalist I’m duty-bound to write about it. 

Who cares about Qatar 2022…? Italy aren’t even in it

It’s been a season of opportunities here at Parma Calcio. Early in the season we took a look at the team and decided the way we wanted to play. There’s one way I enjoy playing football, but then there’s also what the team can do on the pitch. It’s important to have those two meet, or you’re not going to get much of a result either way.

After the first few weeks, I took two things up: A) that we had few natural scorers, meaning that we would have to set up our team in a way that would provide high-quality chances for our crap strikers to waste at a pace slow enough to still score a few; and B) we have a number of players who would either have to produce or get lost. The first part of that was worked on in the tactics board, so that’s where I headed first.

Writing this bit I had originally forgotten that I had already presented to you my tactical plans. That made it like looking back at someone else making the decisions, and it proved an interesting experiment: how did things change? The SS was originally an AP-S, but when the surging runs of Franco Vázquez became too good to ignore, I decided to indulge in them. I also changed the SV-A to an SV-S as a consequence of Bernabé becoming more fluent in the position and the DM becoming too isolated at times.

As per a general plan, the original idea was to create a lot of high xG chances, basically to put my players in a position where they most needed to tap it in. The approach was supposed to be that of a precision scattergun. Up front, neither Roberto Inglese nor Gabriel Charpentier are deadly finishers, so them dropping and creating space for runs in behind was a better use of their high work rates.

I toyed with the idea of a high press, but I probably would’ve needed a front two, which meant either shifting Vazquez to the side or dropping any of the central midfielders in favour of him and using him as a DLP… and again, those runs.

Talking of the runs, I also made use of one of my favourite roles since FM21, when I can get it to work, the Treq. What would be of this 1990s Italian football throwback party without a proper Trequartista and that was Gennaro Tutino, who played it on the left in a personalised role, with his replacement fitting more neatly into the IW-A.

At the back, as much as I loathed the huge gaps the Wingbacks left in behind, the width they provided on going forwards, particularly Enrico Delpratro and Woyo Coulibaly on the right was just too much to avoid. 

For the rest of it, it’s just set up for the team to mostly keep the ball, when in the attacking phase, without losing the opportunity to go on a quick transition here and there, something we also worked on the training pitch with my sessions.

Did it work? Well… kind of. Taking a look at some of the tools my good friend FM Stag and his love for numbers put at our disposal, two things largely happened. 

First, it did lead to my wingers underperforming their xG, which was to be expected and planned. Valentin Mihaila and Gennaro Tutino vastly scored less than expected. This was planned for and accounted for, and I can attest to it by the character of the thousand times that I held my head with my hands while watching a game. 

However, when it comes to my strikers there’s a different phenomenon going on. Whereas I expected us to create a vast amount of high xG chances and convert a few, what ended up happening is that we created a vast amount of regular chances and converted… a decent number. 

A look at the FM numbers shows we got the scatter part far better than the precision part. Looking back, my guess is that having one of the best teams in the league had a far bigger effect than I anticipated. Against weak defences, which for us were most defences, it was the chance generation that got us through, not the type of chances.

For now, it’s not an issue. I was always planning on bringing a more “deadly” shooter to the team, particularly due to a few things I’ll talk about next, but it feels like something worth keeping in mind going forwards.

That takes me to the other important thing that happened this season. When I started this save I was keen on the idea of having some old talent to carry the team, as you can see by the fact I made three of them my feature players in the opening chapter.

However, things quickly changed. The first to fall off the side was Gianluigi Buffon. My, oh my I wanted to make things work with Gigi. But it’s simply not sustainable. He’s been great in teaching my younger keepers his ways, but he simply cannot command a squad and wages bill spot as he commands right now. 

At €1.57 million a year, he takes 5,8% of my budget, but he simply did not perform. Rose-tinted glasses kept him in his position for a bit longer than I should’ve, but by the middle of the season he was costing us points. Taking a look at the data for goalkeepers is a bit harder for us non-excel exporting nerds, but I know what I saw. Simply put, he had grown too dependent on his initial assessment of the situation being correct, as he no longer could fix it. 

A far less talented goalkeeper like Leandro Chichizola took him out of the team, and this poses the question of what will I do when we start the next season and I have to inform Gigi he just doesn’t cut it anymore. Tears will roll.

Sorry Gigi, it will hurt me too

A less teary-eyed goodbye will be that of Cristian Ansaldi. The former Torino man posed a problem for me, as his complete skill set allowed me to use him in one of several ways. Problem is, he didn’t work for the job I had planned for him. Father time catches us all and his performances on the left wingback didn’t merit much game time. 

Of course, that meant discontent, and being a big name in the squad, it also meant minions. In the end, I agreed to increase his playtime in the middle of the park; that in turn created problems of its own, but I couldn’t risk a full-on squad mutiny during a promotion challenge.

 This problem sorted itself on its own, as Ansaldi announced later in the season that he’d be retiring before next season. That leaves me with nothing else but some freed-up wage bill and the need for a new left-back, which I already had. I’ll be glad to see the back of his head. However, it always leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth not being able to make the best of the players I have at my disposal in any save. This leads me to…

The one who got away will be Franco Vázquez. Oh, how those runs gave me joy, but I dearly struggled to make the best of him. Too talented to leave him out, he was at more than one time the odd man out, where I felt often the team would make more sense without him in a 4-3-3. 

In this case, the farewell will not be on my own terms, as with his contract expiring he asked me to allow him to hear offers and eventually decided on a move to Mexico. While I have already made moves to counter his departure for when we start competing in Serie A, he also leaves a bit of a distaste.

The actual results of how the season, like… went and stuff

Getting to the meat of the matter, it has to be said it was a very successful season. Fluctuating at the beginning of the season between good and patchy form, a run of 10 wins in 12 games from March onwards put us on the path to clinch promotion with a game to spare.

We dutifully used that day to also win the title, with Genoa bottling in spectacular fashion a title over which they held a 12 points advantage over 2nd place at one point. I sincerely don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bottle job from the AI, in all honesty. 

While I don’t really mind either way (as prize money remains the same), surely it bolsters our friend Serafín Vázquez’s reputation to lift some silverware. 

Our Coppa Italia campaign started in solid fashion beating Serie A rivals Monza and then Südtirol, before competing for about 55 minutes with Lazio before absolutely crashing and getting spanked 3-0. I would’ve enjoyed a better run to aid the club’s finances, but it will have to wait.

I’m still to plan much ahead, with the whole “I’m constantly writing about IRL football thing”, but my main aim for our first season back will be, of course, permanence. While I’ll be happy to make a push for European places, a mid-table finish in Serie A pays twice as much as getting promoted, which will help stabilise the club’s economics. 

Moving into Serie A means I can also start looking into South American imports of my own (which Serie B frowns upon), of which I have a number already in sight, but we’ll talk about that more in the next instalment.

Until then, thanks for reading…

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