un’estate italiana / chapter three

“What did you feel when the last penalty went in?”, I ask. Serafín Vazquez’s smile contorted as he wrangled to keep his emotions in check. “I hate it when you ask that kind of question”, he replied. We are in a VIP lounge at the Madrid-Barajas airport. We’ve taken the opportunity to meet up, as I’m leaving to cover the 2024 Copa América in Ecuador, and the Parma boss is flying to his hometown of Córdoba in Argentina for a well-deserved vacation. It’s been now his third season managing Parma Calcio, and yet the surprises won’t stop coming. “Ok”, I said, “Let’s talk about something different… How did you feel at the start of the season?”. 

The Crociati’s start to the season came with a big surprise. The results in the UEFA Europa League and Conference League, with AC Milan and Fiorentina losing their respective finals while also qualifying for European competitions via the Serie A meant that Parma Calcio’s 8th place granted them an unexpected place in the Conference League. “It was a very welcomed surprise, to be honest”, explained Vázquez, “We didn’t really consider the possibility as it took a few results going through to happen, so we weren’t taking it as a factor really”.

The surprise qualification meant Parma’s return to European football for the first time since 2007

The qualification opened up impressive opportunities for Parma, but it also created a few responsibilities. “We knew it was going to add a significant load of matches, which for a recently promoted side like ours is always a big ask”, added Vázquez, “The way we dealt with it was by being very careful when adding quality so that our rotations proved solid throughout”. They got there, mostly. 

Additions like HNK Rijeka’s Veldin Hodza, Girona’s Miguel Gutierrez and Vizela’s Samu added depth to a side that had already proven they belonged in Serie A and made up for the departures in the transfer market. However, many felt that Parma Calcio’s X factor was going to be a different man: Javier Pastore.

The Argentine creative mid had just been released by Elche in Spain, and at 35 and with an injury history there weren’t going to be many opportunities; if someone could sympathise, it was going to be Serafín Vazquez. “I spoke with Javier late in the window”, said the Parma manager, “I knew that we were going to have a long season, and I felt that his talent could prove useful in providing a breath of fresh air for us if managed correctly”. Shocking a few with his return to a relatively high level of European football, Pastore signed for Parma just a week before the start of the Serie A campaign, and right after the Crociati had secured their place in the Conference League’s League phase.

Pastore was supposed to be Parma’s maverick off the bench, but destiny had other plans

After gaining a few minutes in a friendly against Fidenza and with the Under 20s, Javier Pastore would make a discreet debut with Parma in the Serie A in a 3-1 win visiting Sampdoria, before dropping an absolute 35 minutes masterclass at the Ennio Tardini against Hellas Verona. In that short time, the Argentine assisted the opener for Parma, dribbled past two defenders to crush a shot against the top bar, and generally gave order to a midfield that had struggled to keep the ball all game long. It was all that Vázquez had anticipated. It was a fleeting moment.

A bad move in training caused Pastore’s already damaged knee ligaments to tear, putting him out of contention for at least half a season. “The first thing I did was visit him and tell him that he was still part of my plans, but I can’t say I don’t understand his decision”, Vázquez told me. At just 35 years old, tired of his body giving up on him, Javier Pastore called it a career, and just like that Parma’s off-the-bench maestro who was supposed to hold the midfield together during their European campaign was no more.

Still, Parma won every single one of their League phase commitments to set up a Round of 16 clash with Dynamo Kyiv. Solid wins home and away got them to face arguably the best team in the competition, Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarterfinals. “Everyone thought our run would end there, but I felt if we played our game we could do it”, said Vázquez, and play their game they did. A magistral performance by Gennaro Tutino in particular, which surely gave Eintracht’s right-back Silvan Widmer nightmares, took Parma to a new level and they won 3-0 in front of a crowd of over 38,000 Germans and some 1,700 ecstatic Parma fans. A solid win at the Ennio Tardini with two goals by Enzo Copetti confirmed the result.

European nights made a successful return to the Stadio Ennio Tardini

It would be a clash of the Cinderellas in the semis, with Norwegian side Molde FK in the other corner. “As a manager, it’s hard to stay focused when you get a matchup like that after beating a side like Eintracht. It can feel like you’ve already won as if you’ve already taken the big step, and that’s when you’re caught on the wrong side”, explained Vázquez. Molde did indeed provide a tougher challenge than the Germans, particularly in the away leg when a Magnus Wolff Eikrem masterclass meant Parma were lucky to get away with just a 1-1 draw, but it all had been settled in the home leg, when it was Enzo Copetti ‘s day to shine, as a hat trick tied the golden boot race with St. Gallen’s Jeremy Guillemenot and Marseille’s Matheus Cunha. The French side was actually the rival Parma would have to face in the final, after beating Athletic Bilbao.

“The fact that two years after playing in the second tier we were in a European final felt almost unreal”, explained Vázquez, “When that happens you have a hard time dealing with the consequences of it all. It’s a bit like a dream where you struggle to realise you’ll have to deal with whatever happens afterwards. That’s probably why we conceded that early lead”. Indeed, despite looking like the more dominant side, Parma gave up a goal before the game was 8 minutes old, and spent the rest of the match chasing it. It wouldn’t be until the 93rd minute when a spectacular Hicham Boudaoui run gave them the tying goal. With nothing of merit happening in the following 30 minutes of extra time, it all went to penalties. “So”, I asked Serafín Vazquez again, “What did you feel when the last penalty went in?”.

Tobiáš Vacík, for theangrylinesmen

Parma, take three

Well, what a month it has been. In case you haven’t been following me on Twitter, I spent the entirety of the month between the last update and this one planning my first-ever trip to London, in no small part thanks to the folks at Football Manager who were so incredibly kind to invite me. Yes, I’m going to thank them on every platform I write in, sorry.

Back in the heat of Buenos Aires, we go back at it with Parma, and as you can see it has been quite an eventful season. Imagine my surprise when, after writing about our narrowest of narrow misses on European football, we got invited anyway. To this day I’m not entirely sure how it happened but I’m thrilled it did. 

Still, it meant that we had a lot of work to do in the preseason. Like last time, I went into it knowing we were going to lose some talent to the higher economic powers of football, and it was the turn of Simon Sohn, a 22-year-old holding mid who was key in our build-up play and Giuseppe Pezzela, our 25-year-old left wingback who in all honesty was way too good for us to keep any longer, the first departing for Everton for some 11,75M and the second going to Atlético Madrid for 9M. 

Still, solid replacements were found in the aforementioned Hodza and Gutierrez, with further help from another Argentine recruit, Velez Sarsfield’s Agustín Mulet. However, that wasn’t initially my plan. Indeed, my first target was a player I recommended in my South American scouting tips for View From The Touchline: Andrey Santos. 

The Vasco da Gama midfielder looks every bit a generational talent and could have been the man to take our midfield to the next level but, alas, the board did not share my vision. Granted, I have been rather spoiled by them until now, with both the signings of Copetti and Papetti coming in the back of my bursting into the office and going “this guy is too good, we need to sign him” and them forking out the cash. Still, quite how we missed out on a breakthrough signing on account of two million euros missing when we had some 15M in the bank is… annoying.

Still, our season started rather well, winning all four Qualifying Rounds in the UECL to enter the competition proper, and despite shock losses to newly promoted sides Cremonese and Empoli in our first set of Serie A fixtures, a good series of results after that ensure we rapidly climbed the table and stayed dominant in Europe… that is until FM angst attacked.

I’ve come to refer as “FM angst” to the increasing sensation and anxiety that your team is falling apart and nothing you do seems to put a stop to it. It starts slow… perhaps you win a game by a slim margin coming off a run of decent results, or perhaps you get a shock elimination in a national cup to a smaller side after missing lots of chances. It’s something that starts the itch until you can’t quite help but scratch it, and then the snowball effect begins. For me, it started after a 3-1 loss at home to Fiorentina.

Now, I have no real right to get angry about it. We were better, yes, but they weren’t useless and Fiore have been our bogey side for as long as we’ve shared a division as they always manage to get a result against us. This annoys me as in both seasons we’ve been in Serie A they’ve been close rivals, meaning those are key points. Still, that got me going and then when the following week we got a ghastly draw against bottom-of-the-table Spezia… I started scratching.

scratch, scratch, scratch…

It starts slowly. You change a role here and there, you add a Team Instruction or decide on a new starter for a position; don’t get me wrong, these are genuine fixes to genuine issues when properly diagnosed, but when you’re going off that itch, it’s proper FM angst. Things got worse when a very narrow win against another relegation candidate, Genoa, made a hero out of my goalkeeper. The loss of points started to worry me as we slipped further and further away from the European places. 

A few wins calmed me down and masked the problem, but when we got another shocking result against yet another bottom-of-the-league team (this time, defeat against Cagliari at home), I snapped. I went full-on, tactic rebuilding, emotional decision-making. The result? We picked up 4 points from the next 15 available and got eliminated from the Coppa Italia.

Battling FM angst & the Final

As I’ve written before, I do believe the best thing to do when you realise I’m going down that rabbit hole is simple: stop digging; that translates to FM (or any other game really) as stop playing. Simply put, there are challenges that no amount of tinkering and overthinking can solve. Sometimes, it’s better to take a step back and reevaluate. 

So after calling a night and spending the next morning working on other stuff, when I went back into the save, I started to ponder whether there were any real issues we were fighting, or if it was all indeed just a creeping sensation. The initial gut feeling was that there were issues, but the data seemed to contradict it. Looking at the numbers, we were outperforming the league average in every attacking stat other than dribbles and (perhaps crucially), goals. Our defensive numbers looked a bit short on blocks and clearances, but then again so do those of the top teams, as it simply translates from doing less defending.

Another crucial piece of evidence is looking at the xG table, where we were ranking far better than our actual position, meaning we were at the very least playing like a better team than we were looking, pointing towards more of an individual problem than a collective one.

With a better understanding of our actual performances, the question that remained was… why did I feel like we were slipping? There, the answer proved rather easy to find: over-expectation. While I was totally focused on getting us back in European football for next season, as a way to further our economic position, the truth is even challenging for it was quite the season.

Parma ranked third from bottom in both seasonal net spend and wage spend in Serie A, closer to relegation candidates Spezia and Cremonese, and spending close to a quarter of what European places rivals AS Roma and AC Milan were spending. Quite simply, I was setting myself a goal that was potentially outside our reach.

Armed with a better understanding of our situation, I worked on getting us back on track, mainly focusing on the tactical style that had gotten us where we were, but also keeping some of the adjustments that had shown promise.

We were very much outsiders in the economic race…

We didn’t go undefeated for the remainder of the league nor did we make an unexpected go at UCL positions, but we did sustain better periods of form, which was welcomed, particularly going into the European run. Having accepted that a UEL place finish was probably out of our reach, I focused our efforts on the Conference League campaign. The aforementioned win against Eintracht was much-needed encouragement and when we resisted the Wolff Eikrem masterclass with Molde (seriously, he was everywhere), I was glad that I had stopped the useless tinkering.

The final would prove a gruesome contest. The early Marseille goal set us back and despite some good chances, it didn’t look like our day. When that 93rd-minute tying goal came I hoped that the emotional acceleration would carry us to the title, but all our efforts proved insufficient. In the penalties, we would find ourselves on the back foot again as Jasmin Kurtic missed the opener. Despite Chichizola saving Marseille’s second, another miss, this time by signing Samu, meant it was in the foot of the Frenchmen’s Valentin Rogier to seal it, which he dutifully did. 

What did I feel when the last penalty went in? Not that much. I generally go into FM penalty shootouts with a “glass half empty” mentality, as I’ve hardly won any. There must be some strange pattern of attributes in the players I like to sign and play that mean they’re bad at penalties or perhaps I’m bad at picking the kicking order, but regardless of the reason, I’ve known far more disaster than triumph from the spot.

In the days after the final I waited expectantly for the news item to confirm another position in the Conference League, but despite some repeating factors (i.e. our finishing 8th in the table and an Italian side losing the final), it seems like it was not quite enough for the European spot gods to grant us their favour. However, good news arrived in the shape of a 10M transfer kitty granted by the board, which should mean that provided we don’t lose any more key figures, we could launch into the market and find that one name that pushes us to take the leap. 

Until then, thanks for reading.

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