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Italian football in FM19: Fantasista Quest

The soccer team of 1. FC Nuremberg enters the plane to Istanbul, Turkey, at the airport of Nuremberg on the 16th of October in 1961. The German champion will play the first leg game of the round of 16 of the Eruropean Cup of the champions against Turkish champions Fenerbahce. Nuremberg won 1:2 against Istanbul and reached the quarterfinal after the second leg game in Nuremberg (1:0). | usage worldwide (Photo by Karl Schnörrer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

I would like to invite you all on a world-spanning, time-bending journey. It is a side project of mine, ran parallel to my main Dynamo Kyiv save. Also, as it is likely to be the last save I start on FM 2019, it must be one of epic proportions and ambition. Being a huge fan of Italian calcio, I find much of my tactical inspiration in Italy while I enjoy watching English football. England is where the beautiful game began and I find the Premier League to be the most competitive league, especially on Football Manager. In the game I use it as a testing ground for many tactical styles, from Tiki Taka to Gegenpress. I tried Spanish patient approach with Arsenal and Man City before, and could not resist to give Gegenpressing a try this year with Liverpool (albeit briefly as it just felt like cheat mode). In the 1st part in a planned multi-part article I intend to unite my two loves to tell this story. I begin the tale in England in the 70s, before moving to 80s Italy. It is bound to be a curious hodgepodge of styles and ideas, for as we all know, some of the best cuisine is fusion cuisine. Welcome aboard! Italian football in FM19.

Italian football in FM19
Hoddle in a typical moment of unbridled artistry while Arsenal defender bows in consternation

“I was not a great goalscorer, I was just a scorer of great goals.”

Such simple words to live by, which Glenn Hoddle used to describe himself. And he truly scored some amazing goals, like this air-born volley in the video below, during his time with Tottenham between 1975 and 1987.

While playing for the Spurs in the 70s, Hoddle possessed the creative spark to make even the most average team, amazing. In some ways Hoddle was the most Italian footballer without actually being Italian. Yet in their obsession on hard work and iron physicality, media had labelled him as a “luxury player” without really appreciating what his creativity added to the Spurs and English National team at the time. In retrospect, I think that a Fantasista is a better term to describe his talent. A term that in Italian football culture usually denotes the team’s Number 10 attacking central midfielder as well as their star flair player. Even in a rigid Catenaccio, there was always that one flair player with the most skill, imagination and intelligence to pull off moves that others could only dream off.

It started in Italy. Like most beautiful things that make up our beautiful game, the concept of fantasista had its roots on the Italian peninsula. We all know the names of Maradona, Baggio, Totti, Platini and Zidane. What all of these footballing legends have in common is that at some point in their careers they could be described as fantasistas. Through a unique combo of skills they were able to play the game in such a way as to elevate it above that of a simple sport and into the territory of an art form. So what makes one into a fantasista? And can it be recreated in Football Manager?

The Holy Essence of Fantasista

Italian football in FM19

In the 70s Era English football (and as is probably the case now with the popularity of pressing systems) too much importance was put on hard work, physicality and defensive contribution of every player in every phase of play. We probably have Dutch Total Football to blame for starting the trend where individual skill and flair have become secondary to team’s success. Sometimes extremely talented, creative players are scrutinized unfairly. When the team loses it becomes the fault of Hazard or Ozil for not working hard enough. At other times world-class players like Neymar are described as lazy for no fault other than playing the game in the only way he knows. Often the team’s success is not linked with the flair and unpredictability that such players inject into every match.

Fantasista is an ability and flair player rather than a physicality player. They will not power through opposition by their pure physical strength or speed. Rather such players are adept at employing a boundless arsenal of tricks, their natural flair, combined with elite technical ability and positional intelligence. These three I see as the pillars of the essence of fantasista, which have to be present from an early age. While technical skill can be trained to a certain degree, creative imagination and intelligence are the ones that are hardest to increase. Ideal candidates need to be identified early in their development in order to be nourished into the creative and attacking pivot of the team. Every tactical system and every squad needs such players who can create magic with the ball at their feet and can change a game with but a single pass or create a goal from nothing. They often end up wearing Number 10, a universally recognized symbol of their special role. In Italy and South America they are cherished (and sometimes acquire near demigod status) while in England they are still viewed as a luxury, and thus not a really necessary, commodity.

Italian football in FM19
Argentinean kids practicing their skills in the shadow of their divine idols, Maradona and Messi

Hoddle was not first or even arguably the greatest “fantasista” #10 that England produced. But similarly to his more famous copatriot Paul Gascoigne, he could create something magical out of nothing. He has been describes as one of the most gifted English footballers of his generation who showed exquisite balance and ball control, coupled with elite passing, vision and extraordinary shooting ability (in open play and set pieces). Possessing all the tools of a fantasista, he often found gaps in any opposition and created seemingly impossible goals when faced with a parked bus.

Speaking of parked buses, by early 1970s, Serie A has become infamous for its focus on ultra defensive anti-football, where strikers faced a monumental challenge of breaking through lines of 4 or 5 defenders. Three in the back has become a very popular set up for central defenders on the peninsula. In addition to using three dedicated central defenders, there was the proclivity of using at least one fullback as a more defence-oriented “returner”. Such tactical set up alone would have made watching Serie A games a boring experience at the time. Yet how would one explain why uber-creative players like Maradonna and Baggio flourished in Italy?

Italian football in FM19
AVE CAESAR ROBERTO! Another kill for Baggio and Italian stadium fills with noise of enraptured crowds praising their favourite gladiator.

Another unique aspect of all fantasisti, is that they all enjoyed near-mythic status at some point of their career, usually at one club to which they brought unprecedented glory alongside the rise of their own fame. We witnessed this with Cruyff’s meteoric rise at Ajax, Maradona elevating Napoli to world stage in the 80s or Baggio doing the same for Fiorentina. Journalist love to write about such players, whose very names spark joy in the eyes of fans. While the club managers like to dream of the next Great One to nurture at their club and make the fan’s football fantasies real.

Italian football in FM19
Diego Maradona, fan-proclaimed King of Naples, doing a victory lap after helping Napoli win its first Scudetto ever

The Brescia Experience

Essentially, Italian managers understood the value of including at least one star player in a completely free playmaker role with a licence to do anything to get the ball into the opposite net. So even if the rest of the team played very conservatively, the designated artist or “fantasista” would inject the tactic with just enough flair and panache to get that one crucial goal and to win the love of the fans. In the end Italian managers understood that the beauty of football is in individual moments of greatness. Nothing exemplifies this better than the story of Carlo Mazzone and Brescia’s surprising 2000 season.

These days Brescia Calcio is languishing in Italian Serie B, having narrowly avoided relegation to 3rd division in 2018. And while currently the fortunes of the club are looking up (they are well on course for promotion back into Serie A), they have never been better than in 2000. In that year, through good luck and the shrewd use of loan market, Brescio manager Carlo Mazzone was able to bring together Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo. Baggio at the time was an aging legend and one of the greatest, beloved attacking playmakers in Italy and in the world. A fantasista in every sense of the word. After lengthy stints with Fiorentina, Juventus and both Milanese clubs and numerous injuries his career needed a booster. At the same time we had Andrea Pirlo, a young playmaking talent who had difficulty asserting himself at the Inter squad, already rich in attacking midfielders. His lack of game time was one of the reasons he was allowed to be loaned back to his former club for the second half of the season. Pirlo cherished the prospect of playing together with his boyhood idol, Baggio.

Mazzone quickly saw the potential of playing the two flashy playmakers together, albeit at two different ends of the field. In the defensive end you had Pirlo as regista. While in the attacking end, Baggio acted as the classic #10 fantasista in attack, often getting on the ends of Pirlo’s wonderful long laser passes like in this late equalizer against Juventus.

The first touch on that Baggio goal is simply magical, although Pirlo’s long pass was not too bad either. Both led to Brescia getting a much needed tie away at Juventus to solidify their best ever 7th spot in the league table.

The dynamic chemistry between the two, not only helped Brescia avoid relegation in 2001 but led them to their best Serie A finish (7th place and qualifying for the UEFA Intertoto Cup). Mazzone became the first coach to deploy Pirlo in a deeper creative role, as a deeplying playmaker (or regista in Italy), rather than as an offensive midfielder role which Baggio occupied. Baggio’s essentially played as a trequartista. In the game it is the role with most creative freedom and closest to the fantasista ideal. Pirlo excelled in his regista role, mainly due to his technique, vision, long passing ability and having one of the most tactical brains in the history of the sport. He could truly plan his passing moves, 4 or 5 passes in advance. Baggio was also a highly intelligent player but in a different way. He was a genius when it came to spacial awareness, in knowing when to be in the right place and time. He made it look easy whether passing or scoring. The true essence of a fantasista comes out when you pair high intelligence with flair and unrivaled dribbling ability like Baggio’s. While his excellent agility and balance also allowed him to exert high ball control and lose his markers when making regular runs off and on the ball.

To give you an example, in Football Manager there is one player in Premiership, who manages to tick off all the boxes required by a fantasista.

Italian football in FM19

I’m going to go as far and say that Eden is probably the closest player in Premiership right now who approaches the ideal of the Number 10 Fantasista, like Hoddle and Gascoine before. His creative spark, flair, is backed up by great decision making, passing, vision and technique, meaning that when he does decide to do the seemingly impossible, he actually has the technical and creative intelligence to actually pull it off. Likewise Eden’s top ball control due to high dribbling, first touch, agility and balance will allow him to keep the ball longer and actually get into the dangerous positions to finish the complex play. A truly incredible player.

Shameless Hype Buildup

Thank you for reading up to now. Now that the stage is set for the fantasista, my next post will continue with a denser tactic analysis. There I will show how to get the best out of a very creative player like Eden in an attacking tactic combining both a trequartista and regista as its two creative pivots. The tactic will also act as my attempt to recreate a well-known, successful tactical system from last decade’s Champions’ League winner.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_20190506_1426450-2-2.jpg

Can you guess which club used it? Leave your guesses in the comments below (or on our Facebook and Twitter). I will leave another little hint/preview below. If someone is able to guess the team then I will have no choice but to upload my final tactic with the next entry in Dynamo Project for all to see:)

Written by crusadertsar

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