un’estate italiana / chapter two

This story starts at the ending; it may seem counterintuitive but that’s how it is. It’s not that uncommon, I’m sure many of you can name many stories that do. Sometimes, the odds are simply too big, the finale too grandiose, and the events too incredible, so we have to anchor them somewhere. The story of Serafín Vázquez’s second season at the helm of Parma Calcio is one such story.

With just over 30 years of sporting journalism under my belt, I’ve sprinkled enough of my cigar’s ash and whisky drops over the chronicles of tears, either bitter or sweet, to know endings are one of two kinds. Serafín Vázquez didn’t cry in his last press conference of the season but his sideways, wrinkled smile, almost like a scar running through his face, was enough to know he wasn’t entertaining us without some pain. Parma had just been denied their biggest objective of the season, in the death of time, over a heart-breaking rule.

Not quite the happy ending Parma players hoped for…

“It’s hard to process it”, explained Vázquez, “We know the rules are for everyone and all that, but it does feel a bit like daylight robbery. We came here and we did our bit, and we did it with the hope of what it could bring, so it stings. Me and the players”. In truth, there’s no big scandal or shocking revelation, simply a result that went against them. But hurt is hurt, and pain is pain.

The ending of Serafín Vázquez’s second season at the helm of Parma Calcio didn’t even have much to do with I Crociati themselves. While they arrived on the last gameday of the season with work to do, that work was solidly done by the hour mark of their game. When Lionel Messi won the World Cup, a fellow journalist from Argentina who was with me in the coverage told me that it was one of those rare, rare instances when football, even for a moment, forgets to be the absolute bastard it usually is. The King Sport did not spare Serafín Vázquez such niceties.

No, the story ends with a 93rd-minute Atalanta goal: the same one that brought an explosion of joy in Bergamo and broke every heart in Parma. “It’s funny how things end up working out. If we would have been offered this at the beginning of the season we would’ve probably rushed to take on the deal”, admitted Vázquez, “But with how things developed, how this team grew together, the results we’ve gone through, it is a bit bitter, yes”.

Tobiáš Vacík, for theangrylinesmen

The Returning Loanee Storm

Well, I’m back. Must apologise for the IRL commentary there, but I’ve decided I’m calling the 2022WC for Argentina in any save I play, regardless of who actually wins it. Anyhow, been a while, right? When we last left off we were riding into the Serie A sunset in our spaghetti western, having won the title quite literally in the last matchday.

However, when the dust cleared and it was time to reassess our position, I found myself with a rather unexpected problem coming through: Loanees returning. Now, perhaps it’s my lack of experience in the Italian game or my general aversion to the use of the loan system other than to unload youngsters who desperately need minutes or surplus players I can’t quite get rid of any other way, but when the clock hit midnight and Parma became a Serie A side, I was inundated with returning loanees.

Pictured: Parma accountants watching the loanees arrive at the Ennio Tardini

Over forty players made their return to the Ennio Tardini after what I can only imagine must’ve been a big reunion party in the Parma airport, trading presents and anecdotes from the different corners of the world they had been to. Of course, not all of them stuck around for long. A big number were simply on expiring deals meaning the moment they returned from their loan was also the day they became a former Parma player, but not all. Plenty of players ended up stockpiling in my squad screen, and they were hungry. 

Among the 14 people who did indeed join my first team squad, four were on deals inside the squad’s most expensive, over the one million p/a mark, and another two were close to that mark. Even with the departing wages of Cristian Ansaldi and Franco Vázquez and the tactical manoeuvring around Gigi Buffon’s deal, my wage budget was destroyed for the upcoming season. That meant my number one focus going into the new season would not be on how we would be not improving the team but actually shifting around the tides of discarded players and making some sense of the options at my disposal.

Luckily, I was soon handed out a “solution” to my problem. Since our promotion, the interest in dynamic midfielder Adrián Bernabé had spiked and soon we could not stop it. Napoli quickly swung by with a deal worth a total of 18 million euros, and we could not keep him any longer.

This brought forward two situations: on the one hand, it allowed me some economical flexibility; on the other, it also forced me out of the 4-2-3-1, which would’ve meant signing two new central attacking mids thanks to Vázquez’s departure. With that in mind, I decided on a switch to a 4-3-3, with a holding man sitting behind to central mids. It played right into my hand, as among the returning loanees we had players like Jasmin Kurtic and Wylan Cyprien who fit this shape much better. Another loanee making a timely return was Giuseppe Pezzella, who provided a cheap replacement for Cristian Ansaldi. 

Others, like central midfielders Hernani and Alberto Grassi, were less lucky; both were on expiring deals and entering their thirties, which meant they were better sold and kept. Much in the same way, players who I deemed not good enough for Serie A were sold, such as centreback Yordan Osorio, midfielder Nahuel Estevez and striker Roberto Inglese. Speaking of which…

Signing via-IRL

As a consequence of the football I enjoy watching not matching the teams I enjoy playing with in FM, the Venn diagram of the players I love IRL that I can then go on and sign in the game is rather limited. While I spend most of my time watching the top five European leagues, the Argentine Primera División and other South American leagues, I’ve also managed more times in the lower reaches of the Swedish leagues than in any of those. Thus, this Parma save gave me a very special opportunity to go and land some of my IRL favs, and lately there are few players I’ve enjoyed watching as much as Racing Club’s Enzo Copetti.

Enzo Copetti, the answer to the question “What if ‘beast mode’ was a person?”

A strong, pacey, classic number nine, Copetti feels like a throwback in many ways, but he’s also got many of the modern striker’s mentalities. He is, for the most part, a beast of a man, strong as an ox and indulges in very few technical luxuries, but he’s also far more adept at playing the effort game in a way few strikers of ye olde days ever did. He’s been a pleasure to watch with Fernando Gago’s Racing Club last season as his hard-nosed style keeps defenders annoyed and on their toes.

As I had explained during the last post, the idea of building an attack where sub-par strikers were afforded a lot of high xG chances had worked (in a roundabout way) in Serie B. However, I was doubtful it would be an approach that we could take in Serie A, with better defences and probably a lot less of the ball. We needed to switch to a striker-focused style with a killer number 9 in front, and I went for Copetti.

I was surprised by how cheap he was. Of course, being one year removed from IRL meant he was 27 instead of his current 26 years of age, and that’s hardly prime time for a move to Europe, but still he was only 2 million euros (one up front, one over the next 12 months) with a 35% fee remaining in Racing Club’s control. At under 1 million euros p/a in wages, he was also very affordable. 

I also made a move for one Hicham Boudaui. The 24-year-old Algerian midfielder has class all around with his high Flair, Passing, First Touch and Vision, and would fit neatly into the Bernabé-shaped hole in our midfield. That did mean, however, that I had already made two non-EU player signings, the limit for any given season in Serie A. Therefore, any new additions would have to come with a European passport.

After the whole house clearing was complete and the new arrivals were comfortable in their new surroundings, we had spent a total of 5.5 million euros and sold for a total of 26.5 million, which put a good way down to fixing economic problems with the club, putting big smiles on the board’s faces.

The Instruction Switch

Said smile must’ve probably vanished after our first three games. After a fairly solid if unspectacular pre-season, we went into our first fixtures somewhat confident in having done the necessary work to have it all click, but far from it. Our season debut was a 1-0 loss to Ascoli in the Coppa Italia First Round, where we struggled to generate any serious chances and eventually conceded a goal in extra time.

Like a boxer trying to shake off a direct hit, we charged on for our Serie A debut, which ended up being another uninspiring 1-1 draw with Torino at the Ennio Tardini, sufficient to bring Enzo Copetti his first goal, but not enough to forget that cup elimination. Another loss, this time against AC Milan at the San Siro proved another hit, particularly due to how off the pace we were, given we had battled for about 60 minutes with Lazio in the Coppa Italia the season prior.

Still, the knockout blow would come the following week, when we hosted fellow promoted side Cagliari. An absolutely awful performance, where we once again were nowhere to be found. Most worryingly, however, I was seeing nothing from my main man, Enzo Copetti. Four lackadaisical performances, where only the goal saved him from averaging a 6.2 rating. 

We considered every alternative…

Something had to give, and I wasn’t quite sure what… but I did have a hunch. Seeing as we were transitioning to a striker-led team, I considered whether it was time to part with the “Work Ball into Box” instruction, aimed at getting those misfiring strikers of old their high xG chances. 

It was a decision taken in the least scientific, data-led approach ever… but it worked. Instantly actually. Our very first match which the change proved a success and got us our first Serie A win, kickstarting a ten-game undefeated run. It also quite literally unleashed Copetti, who started scoring freely, crowing his arrival to the Gioco Calcio with a hat trick against Juventus in a 4-0 demolition of la Vecchia Signora at the Ennio Tardini.

But… Why did it work exactly? Even right now, I’m not entirely sure. Going through the numbers of those initial games and the subsequent winning run, few numbers from either Copetti or the team look all that changed, except one. Before the change in tactics, the Argentine striker was averaging around 10 passes per game, with a success rate of 60 per cent. The change brought him solidly at over 20 passes per game and circa 90 per cent success. No other metric shows significant enough change.

Copetti’s passing and movement before and after the change

My theory is that, unleashed from the lowered risk-taking in the final third from WBIB, it allowed Copetti to receive in different positions, particularly with more crosses and balls for him to run into. In turn, this would’ve allowed him to receive and shift the ball with a bit more reckless abandon, which given passing isn’t his strong suit, it ironically helped.

Regardless of the reasons, it proved enough to kickstart our season, and Enzo Copetti’s, who would end with 19 goals in Serie A, enough for a top 8 finish in the goalscoring charts, above the likes of Lautaro Martínez and Olivier Giroud.

The Price of a Single Goal

Our new striker was firing, our football was lovely… we had this in the bag. I can say in all honesty this season with Parma has been one of the seasons I’ve enjoyed the most since I started playing FM. We closed the first half of the season sitting comfortably in the top six, and looking dandy.

Over the winter market, we avoided any jump scares plus we shifted some remaining useless wages by renegotiating (poor old Gigi signed a contract worth pennies) or selling, and we signed new deals for important players. We also managed to land a big signing by reinforcing the centreback position with Brescia youngster Andrea Papetti.

Papetti was signed for a measly 3.5 million euros

Coming into January, we hit our first big stumble since the start of the season with a run of three defeats against Fiorentina (3-2 in a game where they got ridiculously lucky), Atalanta and Napoli, but then we started a 12-game undefeated run that got us to March fighting for a Champions League spot no less. 

However, our most fateful game would actually be a win. It was late April and we were coming off breaking a four-match winless streak with a victory against Hellas Verona. Hosting Atalanta, we were sublime; we ran the game scored early and were shifting into our game-killer tactic when I did a substitution, having creative midfielder Hamza Rafia come on for Boudaui.

I had struggled to make the most out of Rafia all season long. A free signing from Juve during the off-season, he didn’t quite perform anywhere on the pitch and was quickly becoming more of a human victory cigar than the super-sub I thought I was signing. Still, we were short in the middle of the park thanks to injuries, so I subbed him on for an exhausted Hicham Boudaui who had run the midfield. 

Our 12 game run put us in contention for European places, but it wasn’t to be…

With ten minutes to go, Rafia took a bad touch in the middle of the pitch and gave the ball away to Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata, who ran through the defence and scored an easy goal. “Oh, well…”, I thought. They had barely created any danger, even after the substitutions, so it made little difference and the game ended 3-1. Except… it did.

A shock loss against Udinese in the antepenultimate match meant we got to the last game needing a win and an Atalanta loss to get to European places. We did our part of the miracle, taking a big win against Lazio on the final matchday of the season (although we did get a helping hand when they had not one but two players sent off inside sixty minutes), but as previously mentioned, a 93rd-minute goal by Atalanta tied their game against Monza, meaning we both ended on 64 points. 

We had the superior Goal Difference, but in Serie A that’s not quite enough. The first tie-breaker is Results Between Teams, and even though we had split the games, theirs was a 3-0, while ours… yeah. Had we not conceded that 81st-minute Duvan Zapata goal, it would’ve gone to us. Football didn’t pay us the kindness of forgetting to be the absolute bastard it usually is.

Close, but not quite there…

Still, I can’t complain. For a season that started with the goal of avoiding relegation, things have gone absolutely fantastic. I will miss the money that can come from a European run, but hopefully we’ll get better luck in the Coppa Italia next season and entertain ourselves with that. 

Another season in Serie A brings even more possibilities, but also more responsibilities. Now we aim to land that continental competition spot, but the team is on solid ground. Most key players are on long-term contracts, we have plenty of young talent, and the pieces are falling into place. Exciting times ahead…

Until then, thanks for reading… 

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