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The Spring season gets started, and to add to my tactical issues and the new players not exactly setting the world on fire in the friendlies, I get the bad news that midfielder Zhou (kind of rolls off the Maoist tongue, doesn't it?) has been injured on international duty. Mix-and-match is the name of the game away to Nordsjælland as we get the ball rolling.
Danish Premier - FC Nordsjælland 0:0 Randers
Big disappointment. True, my first goal was not to concede. But Nordsjælland are second from bottom, and even on the road we should be causing them more problems than we did. One sustained period of pressure in each half might have resulted in the three points we so desperately needed, but the finish just wasn't there. A pretty boring match to get this sprint to the finish started.
Danish Premier - Randers 3:1 AGF
Huge result at home against our bitter rivals, who also happen to be the league leaders. And a result that came completely out of the blue. I started in the counterattacking 4-2-2-2 that found the same opponents out in the cup, but they were dominating the early stages of play, mostly because my two deep-lying mids were too far off Feilhaber, working his creative mojo in the center of the park. So I pushed one of them up into the space Feilhaber was exploiting, dropped my right wing deeper to allow the other holding mid free-range in front of the two center backs to kill their a-mid's space (they play 4-4-1-1), and pushed Movsisyan from a central striker role to one level with the other striker but far out on the right flank, providing width that the now more defensive winger would rarely be advanced enough to supply. A bit of an unorthodox shape, but within a minute of the switch Movsisyan pounced on a rebound to send the fans into raptures.
Five minutes later, my tactical switch played out nearly perfectly, the d-mid feeding my withdrawn winger, who pushed up the right flank before feeding a ball behind the fullback to Movsisyan, pulled wide on the right. Movsisyan proceeded to race into the box and blasted one home from a tight angle (think Donovan in the World Cup). We went to the half up 2-0, and should have been up 3 just after the break, but Nygaard was denied after he skied over three defenders to nod home, only to see the flag waving for a push. Eight minutes later he grabbed a ball fed through by Movsisyan and placed one in the far corner from the edge of the box. Sadly, they clawed one back just three minutes after that on a brilliant individual effort. I brought in a third center back to close off space before any more such nonsense could occur and went 3-5-2 with wingbacks. That worked brilliantly until Ahmed picked up his second yellow. The remaining half hour was a holding action as I slowly pulled back men and reduced attacking runs, clogging the middle and hanging on for a memorable win that extended our unbeaten run to seven games.
Unfortunately, Ahmed is going to see his suspension extended from the automatic one for a red card to three games as he hits the disciplinary points limit, which will put our new center backs firmly on the firing line and in three consecutive road matches to boot. In the press conference afterwards, the ink-stained media wretches are going gaga over Man of the Match Movsisyan, wondering how I'll be able to hang onto him after the season he's been having. Fortunately, I may have an in: I just looked at his Personal Information page and saw that I'm listed under his Favored Personnel.
Danish Premier - Sønderjysk 0:2 Randers
The announcer summed it up at the final whistle: "Hund's boys never looked like losing!" Damn straight. With our new center backs starting in defense both out of necessity (their forwards are too quick for Egholm) and suspension (lacking Ahmed, who would have been a first choice), I opted to play with a more conservative midfield approach in the middle of the park, reducing the more attacking of the holding pair to a support role and giving both holders roles as ball-winners. To make up for a lack of attacking thrust and to take advantage of what my staff perceived as my opponents' weakness against width, I gave both fullbacks orders as wingbacks to encourage them to get forward. Otherwise, it was our bog-standard 4-4-1-1.
The home side showed early signs of making something happen, but then Movsisyan, at the top of his form, gathered a ball wide near the midfield stripe, charged down the left flank, cut in when none of the defenders closed him down, and then fired through the keeper before they woke to the danger. Minutes later, Krol, well advanced in his new wingback role, beat a defender to the endline, paused, got his head up, and rolled one back for the charging Pedersen to slam home. 22 minutes in and we were coasting. They had a brief flurry, but it ended when one of their guys got sent off for a vicious foul on Sane. We came to counter in the second half and probably should have added three or four more only to have the finishing come up short or the flag waving with the ball already in the net. Krol won man of the match and is attracting massive transfer interest, though any potential suitors will have to wait to see him play as he hit the disciplinary limit, meaning he'll be out for the next game.
Danish Premier - Esbjerg 1:1 Randers
This was a huge match in the race for Europe. We went in fourth, but level on points with our hosts, who started fifth. I set out to frustrate, packing the midfield and looking for Movsisyan to do his magic on the break. Unfortunately, most of our chances fell to Zhou in the first half, and his long distance efforts were well off target. We were dominating much of the ball despite Sane, who was playing in the a-mid role under Movsisyan, having an off game.
I decided to swap things around in the second stanza, bringing on Nygaard for the unimpressive Sane and going to the counter in a 4-4-2. Sadly, though our chances started to improve, our possession started slipping away. They got chances, but none were very good. In fact, we had a great chance to go up with twenty minutes to go after Sivebæk played in Movsisyan, but our key man choked. With tiring bodies in the overworked midfield, I made a couple of swaps for fresh legs, getting more attacking on the left wing, but more conservative in central midfield. I thought it was going to be a bore 0-0 with ten minutes left, but they finally fashioned a chance from the wing which one of their strikers promptly slotted home, darting near post in front of the glacial Egholm.
I needed this one and didn't want to let the unbeaten streak lapse. I went on overload, pushing the wings forward and employing wingbacks behind them, launching balls for Nygaard, now playing as a target man. A couple of offsides calls ruined immediate chances, but in the 88th minute Movsisyan flicked on a corner at the near post for new center back signing Niek Ripson to power home with his head from point blank range. Honors even; we hold serve and cling to the final Euro-spot (two other sides are level on 38 points, but we have the edge in goal difference) with a third of the season remaining. Our eleventh game unbeaten means a new entry in the club record books.
Danish Premier - København 0:2 Randers
Fantastic result away from home with a weakened side against one of the two leading clubs in the league. With our rivals AaB visiting on Wednesday, I ran out a starting lineup on Sunday that, while not my best, was certainly my most physical. I also switched formation to one that worked in the cup against better opposition, starting in a direct counterattacking 4-4-2 with the wings pushed high and two d-mids screening the back four and taking away the space that their forwards, Santín particularly, look to exploit between the center backs and central mids.
The opening stages were pretty tame, with little constructive possession. Our first coherent move saw Movsisyan slip Lorentzen through down the left. The winger beat his man to the byline and crossed for Nygaard to power home from close range. They piled on the pressure for the rest of the half, hitting the bar twice, but generally having only shots from distance or well-challenged headers in the box.
The second half started in a similar fashion. I was content to let them have the ball as long as they were reduced to speculative attempts. I gave the shout to have my boys sit deep, resulting in little pretty football, mostly my guys hitting it around the back or lobbing free kicks and corners into the box. Just after the hour, we got a free kick just outside the box, and d-mid Karlsen bent one around the wall and in at the near post to put us up two.
I pulled back further, getting a few of my tiring guys that I expect to start in midweek off the field and going to a 4-1-3-2. We created little for the remainder of the match, while they had three pretty good chances, put they either hit the woodwork or pushed them wide, so we retained the clean sheet to stay level with OB and Esbjerg in the fight for that final Europa League spot (we need that money to match my ambitions for the club).
København are, of course, our competition in the upcoming cup semifinal, so I hope I didn't just blow my chances of springing a tactical surprise...and the lovely media aren't slow to point out that there were bosses from other teams in the stands having a look at my boys with an eye to prying them away from me.
Danish Premier - Randers 2:0 Aalborg
Big result against a rival though we made heavy weather of it. I started in my normal 4-4-1-1 with my strongest eleven, but Movsisyan was getting zero service up top. Fortunately, we also looked pretty solid at the back. They did manage to stick a ball in the net, but it was called back for offsides. As the half wore on, our confidence began to tell, a few exchanges in and around the box producing decent chances we couldn't finish.
To start the second, I encouraged my wingbacks to overlap more and went to the "swoosh" 4-4-2 midfield (Beckmann advanced on the left, Karlsen sitting deeper as the right-central mid. Sane wasn't finding the game at all (a problem that's becoming something of a trend), so I pulled him for Nygaard. Five minutes later, Nygaard justified his selection, turning quickly on the edge of the box and hitting a wicked curler that the keeper could only parry into the middle of the box. Movsisyan pounced, beating the defenders to the ball and rifling home a thunderous volley. Five minutes after that, Beckmann hit a Ronaldo-esque screamer of a free kick from well outside the area that confused their keeper to no end. He deflected the dancing ball, but it wound up in the roof of the net anyway.
For the remaining twenty minutes, we sat back and countered, clogging the middle with an anchor behind two ball winners and leaving three spread high on the front line, the wide men playing as inside forwards. Aalborg created nothing, while we had a couple breaks down the wing that resulted in corners.
In the lull between matches, I get standout d-mid Morten Karlsen to ink a 2-year extension to his contract, which would have run out in June. He just turned 31, but relies more on his smarts and motor than on sheer physicality and isn't asking for the moon, so I'm happy to keep him in the fold. The only other big name whose contract is expiring is Nygaard. He's willing to take a pay cut for next year, but he'll still easily have the highest wages at the club. Though he's a club icon, he'll also be turning 34 at the start of next season, and there are some mid-sized clubs from big leagues sniffing around. Hmmm.
Danish Premier - Odense 1:2 Randers
And here I learned the lesson of being too much of a tactical tinkerman. A little goes a long way. Let's begin with the good. I took my usual approach to sides playing a wide 4-4-2 diamond: dropped one holding mid and had him man-mark their a-mid, pushed one wing forward, and set our a-mid to harass their d-mid. They had a couple of chances early, but we soon started to control possession, creating a handful of half-chances before the breakthrough. Movsisyan, all alone up top, raced onto a clearance behind their left back and took it down the left flank. One of their center backs came across to meet him, with the other covering in the center. Meanwhile, Sane, Zhou, and Lorentzen all busted a gut to get forward from midfield. Movsisyan beat the center back to the byline and floated a cross far post. Their covering center back went with Sane near post. Zhou headed on frame from point blank at the far post, but it was saved. Fortunately, the rebound dropped to Lorentzen, who finished from a tight angle.
Five minutes later, Movsisyan made a similar sort of run down the flank, but had only one target against three defenders in the box. So he took it on himself, blasting away from the tightest of angles just as he came into the box. The keeper tried to get in the way, but the ball caromed off him at the near post. 2-0 up and rarely under threat, we were playing some really nice stuff, creating another half-dozen chances before the break.
I stood pat at halftime, telling the boys not to get complacent. They didn't. We should have tacked on another, but couldn't find the finish. That's when I got stupid. On 67 minutes, I pulled back into a 4-1-3-2 and set things up to counter. Almost immediately, they started finding success down the flanks. I gave my guys orders to get wider and gave them a chance to find the game again. They didn't. A looping cross found one of their guys alone on the far stick and he took the chance. I shifted back to a 4-4-2 "swoosh" and set out to counter their asses. The change was instant and obvious. Suddenly, my wingers were getting onto balls into space. Their fullbacks and wingers, forced to defend, lost their attacking impetus. Lorentzen and Zimmerman both blew one-on-one chances on the break, but I was satisfied that we didn't give them a sniff in the final 15 minutes.
In fact, that's going to be the biggest positive I take from the seven games since the break: we've only allowed 3 goals. Adding some athleticism to the back line seems to have done the trick. I'm still worried about how we'll cope with the coming month, a death march if I've ever seen one. In 28 days, we'll play 9 of the 10 games remaining on our schedule, including both legs of the cup semifinals. That's three games in a week to start, followed by three consecutive weeks of Sunday-Wednesday fixtures. In the unlikely event we make the cup final, we'll tack a Sunday-Thursday-Sunday caboose on the end. Gulp. Can't see the unbeaten streak extending too much longer, particularly if we suffer any significant injuries, something we've been desperately lucky to avoid thus far.
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Note to the interested. The US release for the next version of the game, FM 2011, will be November 8th, though it will be available for import pre-order and on Steam on November 5th. You better believe I'll have my order in and get started on a "Saving United" series as soon as the first patches come out.