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Total Football Journeyman: Giant-Killing & Second Chances in La Liga

Part 1: Building a Total Football Club in FM20

One country has always fascinated me. España. The historian in me is attracted to its turbulent history of conquests and revolutions. And Spanish football is no less interesting. As a nation it is united by its love of the beautiful game. Nevertheless it is divided politically and geographically. Each autonomous community comes with its own distinct culture and languages. And it is this vibrant multi-cultural mosaic that also gives Spanish football its unique flavour. It is much more than the ultra’s bragging rights at stake when Barca fights Athletic Bilbao. Rather it is the battle of Catalan nation versus Basque country. La Liga really has the feel of an international league where distinct footballing cultures compete for the ultimate prize. Other than in Champions League, we don’t see this in another league, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. What better setting for my last FM20 saga?

The map of Spanish clubs according to their autonomous region. As you can see regional pride is strong in Spain, making for an interesting league indeed.

The Royal Triumph

In 1981, Real Sociedad de Fútbol (Royal Football Society) were the Leicester of the Spain’s La Liga. In other words, they were a plucky little club from a small city that punched far above its weight. They challenged the traditional hierarchy of La Liga’s Big Three and won the ultimate prize through hard work and perseverance. And a healthy injection of local Basque pride.

Will the “Real” La Liga Giant-Killers of 80s please stand up!?

Over the years La Liga champions have become rather predictable with the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Even with Athletico Madrid joining the triumvirate, it has not been challenging to predict La Liga winners year after year. The situation was not all that different in 1980s. So for a club like Sociedad to win the league was unexpected to say the least. But to do it for two consecutive seasons was simply unheard of. And they did it with a completely home-grown squad, without a single international star to help out. So no Kante or Riyad Mahrez types of signings to help them out. No. Every player on Sociedad’s successful squad was either born or grew up within 2000 square mile area comprising Basque Country.

Interestingly 1980s stand out as unique decade in Spanish football, because during this time the Basque Duopoly dominated the headlines. The two Basque clubs competing at the top were (and still are) Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao, Txuri-urdinak (Whites and Blues) and Rojiblancos (Red-Whites). To this day it remains one of the most iconic and fierce rivalries in world football. And during the 80s, the two rivals shared 4 La Liga titles between themselves! Real Sociedad won in 1981 and 1982 while Bilbao took the honours in 1983 and 1984. It was the longest time that La Liga champion’s title did not belong to Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao – two rivals united by culture.

Keeping It Local, or Not?

Football started out as a local game played by neighbors with a passion for their local club. From these humble roots, the game grew into a cosmopolitan industry where the club’s star is usually from thousands of kilometers away, if not from a different continent all together. The giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona would get picks on the best footballers in the world when selecting their squads. From West Germany’s Bernd Schuster to England’s Lawrie Cunningham, both Barca and Real had their share of international stars in 1980s. Some did better than others.

Maradona (a then world record fee of £5 million), Simonsen and Schuster – Barca’s three international golden boys of the 80s. A case of too much of a good thing. As Spanish league restrictions meant Allan Simonsen competed with Maradona and Bernd Schuster for two foreign player places in the line-up. This caused a dispute, with Simonsen eventually leaving for Charlton Athletic.

What united all these players was the fact that before coming to Spain they were already established international superstars in their own country. For example Allan Simonsen, before arriving in Barcelona in 1979, was already named European Footballer of the year and was becoming one of the most capped Danes.

Allan Simonsen was one of Denmark’s most capped players ever with 55 appearances.

The Basque Example

So in the 80s, while clubs across Europe were discovering the joys of globalization (along with the problems of keeping all of their international stars happy), Basque clubs continued to look within. And it worked wonders. Real Sociedad had its best decade, getting two titles and three 2nd place finishes between 1980 and 1987. During this time the only other team that prevented Sociedad’s total hegemony was Athletic Bilbao. Bilbao won La Liga in 1983 and 1984, thus keeping the title exclusively in Basque Country for four consecutive seasons!

Athletic Bilbao is another Basque club that practices the cantera (youth academy “quarry”) policy of only recruiting players with an established link (either through birth of upbringing) to Basque Country. For a time the two Basque clubs were proof that a club can maintain its local club link, representing its cultural identity, while still being successful. Even more impressive was the fact that these two clubs were able go head to go with the veritable giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid. The two LaLiga giants operated very differently. Barca and Madrid would practically set transfer records every year in their pursuit to out-do each other. By participating it this sports race, Madrid gained their “Galactico” nickname.

At the time Real Madrid invested more money in this famous quartet than the value of full first team rosters on most mid-level clubs

With time, things change. To this day Athletic Bilbao remains strict in who it signs, while The Royals have not been as staunch to their roots. Sociedad abandoned its own cantera policy in 1989 by signing a likable Scouser John Aldridge. He was the first non-Basque to pull on the txuri-urdinak shirt. He was also a hell of a goal-scorer.

The English-born Republic of Ireland international John Aldridge was Real Sociedad’s first non-Basque player, and the club’s top scorer three seasons in a row, 1989 to 1991.

New Realities in 2020

In second decade of 2000s, the ideal of going local and looking within for talent has become a pipe dream. Or has it? The cold reality of globalization makes it easier than ever for “Big” European clubs to raid South American football academies and lesser European leagues (Ajax and Zagreb anyone?). If you can simply buy your way to victory, why bother developing your own academies, right. But is that really the best way? Some current events might play a role in taking clubs back to their local roots. It is hard to predict all the economic repercussions of Brexit and the Covid19 pandemic but some things are becoming clear. Most big clubs will need to start looking within their own academies for talent. Especially as foreign sources becomes less accessible due to travel restrictions and harsh isolationist policies.

And so we arrive at the main point of this Real Sociedad save and blog series. Firstly I want to prove that attractive possession football in very possible in FM20. But my second aim is to showcase how nourishing local talent, with little Transfer Market spending, can keep the club competitive.

Progress Report

So it’s been almost two seasons that I have been in charge of Real Sociedad and things are looking up. While we have not won any trophies yet, the club’s standing has been improved. After finishing 4th last year, we were able to finally get Continental football, and in the prestigious Champions League. There we will be representing Spain alongside the usual big three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletico Madrid. Our initial aim was Europa League, so making it into the Group Stages itself is a coup.

UPDATE: We made into the 1st Knockout Round! The only other Spanish Team to survive to this stage was Athletico Madrid.

On the other hand, as of January 2021, we did not improve much on our previous season’s 4th place finish. The competition in La Liga has been fierce as usual. Alongside the Big Three, Sevilla has been overachieving in 2nd place (they finished 5th last year right behind us). But at least we are still competitive on the big stage.

Developing Our Total Football Identity

Aside from league tables and European success, there have been other ways to measure progress in the last two seasons. My attempts to mold this club into a model Total Football system has started to bear fruit. The main aim is to play attractive, fluid football, not to hog the ball just for the sake of possession. Thus Possession with Intent is the name of the game. The Dutch used to call it Totaalvoetbal, the Catalans – Juego de Posición, and now some name it Vertical Tiki-Taka. In all of its guises, its essence remains the same. How fast and efficiently can 11 men on the field move the ball towards the opponent’s goal. While maintaining total control of the game. Sounds easy enough, right?

“In possession, eleven men have to be in motion. Busy fine-tuning distances. Its not a question of how much you run but where you run to”Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff’s words are one of the reasons why I’m not a fan of the German mechanical football style – Gegenpressing. In my opinion, its probably one of the worst things to happen to modern football. It took one of the aspects of Cruyff’s Total Football – its concept of relentless pressing and defending as a team, and bastardized into a whole playing philosophy. But unlike the original Totaalvoetbal, German version, in its by-the-numbers approach, ignores the technique and vision of the Dutch Way.

Galactico Kaka being bullied by Dortmund’s Gegenpressers

While Total Football had its dark physical side, it was by far overshadowed by its inherent grace. The neat geometry of flowing passes as they mapped triangles within triangles could not be recreated through hard work alone. The importance of technique and vision was paramount and still is to Ajax way of developing youth. It is hard-coded into its TIPS system. It is also the legacy that Barcelona and the Spanish National Team embraced and preserved to this day.

Technique – measuring inherent skill-set or footballer’s “tricks”.

Insight – tactical intelligence in knowing just when and how to use the above-mentioned skills and tricks.

Personality refers to how well the player fits into the team as a whole.

Speed relates to both physical and mental nimbleness in executing instructions.

Finding players with the right attributes in these four areas is essential in my own scouting and youth development efforts at Real Sociedad. It can be a very involved process, and one of the most time-consuming, albeit satisfying aspects of FM20. In Football Manager there is nothing more rewarding than seeing your team identity emerge along the parameters you predefined. It can be a major investment in time as it firstly involves searching for coaches schooled in our system. Secondly, the training set-up needs to be reworked to favour development of attribute ideal for a fluid possession tactic. And of course the infrastructure like youth and training facilities needs to be improved in order to support this development. Only once those are in place, will you start seeing positive change. Here is a peek at mine.

Molding Future Success

To illustrate my next point, it’s best if I retell a story told by Cruyff while he was managing Barcelona.

“When Guardiola was a boy people said to me ‘oh, he’s one of the best’. So I [Cruyff] looked for him in the reserves but he didn’t play in the reserves. I looked for him in the first team and he didn’t play in the first team. Eventually I found him in the third youth team. So I said to the coaches, ‘You said Guardiola was one of the best!’ and they said ‘Yes but physically he is not’. I told them to put him in the reserves’. He will grow, don’t worry he will grow, everybody grows. They said ‘yes, but we will lose’…. I told them ‘If we lose, we lose. We need to create footballers‘. Guardiola did very well.”

Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola – mentor-pupil relationship that allowed Dutch Total Football to continue and maintain its impact on modern football to this day.

My first mistake at Sociedad, was to focus right away on short-term success. When I could not win anything after one season, I started to panic and to blame my tactic (and even the game itself). And when tactical adjustments only appeared to result in marginal improvements then it was easy to lose heart.

Yeah, I did not actually do that, but you get my point. It can be very frustrating to put time into a game, and not have the positive reward at the end. At instinct level, we are still creatures ruled by Pavlovian psychology, and Football Manager is no different. Here what can help is changing the perspective on how you define success. So from now on, I will be putting trophies on the backburner. For now I will be focusing on developing my players to fit my tactical system.

Total Football Training Method

The first thing you should do upon taking over any club in FM20 is to set up a training schedule. In the beginning I found the detail somewhat intimidating and would leave it to my Assistant Manager to set-up. But since staring this save I’m slowly starting to see the benefits of designing my own training routines. The main benefit, is in making the training compliment your tactic. Using a generic training is not ideal since you end up coaching attributes that aren’t essential. For example you don’t want to focus heavily on crossing while using a possession-heavy tactic. When you create your own training schedule you can choose the sessions that best compliment your tactic. Thus you train only the attributes that will help your players perform in your chosen tactical style, be it possession or counter-attack.

As you can see, for majority of the season I have my team focusing on very technical aspects of football. Following Cruyff’s advise, I want to foster the technique and vision that is essential for this style of Possession-heavy football. First and foremost I want to develop highly intelligent players in all positions. Players who can treat the football field as a chess board. If only I could have a bunch of Guardiolas and Cruyffs to fill my starting eleven. Alone, a possession-focused approach will allow my players to keep hold of the ball better. They will still need to know what do with it. Technique and tactical intelligence will allow them to do interesting things with the ball rather than simply passing it around.

Their physical attributes such as speed and endurance are still very important though. These will help a lot in maintaining possession in the first place. But outside of the pre-season (which I leave on default template) I don’t do any physical training during the season proper. In my opinion, physical attributes are secondary to the other more “interesting” attributes. And that is why my training system is geared towards developing the technical and mental attributes needed for Total Football.

Example of Real Sociedad’s training week during a heavy two-match schedule

I organize my training into three weekly schedule templates. I alternate them depending on whether we have two, one or no games scheduled during that week.

The one and two game versions are basically just variations on the “full” schedule. So on a week with no games scheduled I will have my players run through the full gamut of our Total Football practice. It includes, one day general training, one day each of defensive, attacking and tactical training. The remaining three full days are taken up by technical training.

The aim of this practice routine is to instill “possession with intent” football style in my players. Because I want to develop the attributes for this style, then the choice of daily practice routines is very important. I selected each one for its impact on one of the elements of my tactic.

For example you see us training in “defending engaged” and “defending from the front”. This is fitting because we are looking to play a high press football. Due to the split block my front attackers will need to know how to defend high up. They will be the ones most involved in the winning the ball back. Secondly we will use short passes and one-twos to go forward. So its only natural we train “attacking patiently” and overlaps.

In general, without going into more details, I craft my training to suit high-pressing, pass from the back possession game. I target specific attributes such as first touch, dribbling, passing, technique, anticipation, teamwork, vision and workrate. I do this by using only the routines that focus on improving those attributes. Those are easy to find when you study the training routine explanations as seen below.

It does not mean that only those attributes will develop, just that there will be frequent increases there. And I need my players to have high values in their technicals and mentals to play our style of football.

Developing for the Future

Real Sociedad club has an illustrious reputation for developing some of the best footballers renown in Spain and the world. Few of you probably recognized the young man at the start of this article. The French international and Barca star, has already capped his career with World Cup trophy. But few might remember that Antoine Griezmann has originally started his professional career at the Basque club. So to recreate success stories like his, is why I implement such rigorous training system. And its already starting to pay off. Lets fast-forward a few months.

For instance, two players whom I acquired less than a year ago, are already showing the benefits of this training. Ferreira has developed into a very well-rounded box-to-box midfielder. He is very similar to my Mikel Merino, for whom he acts as a backup. While In my attack, I have Eddie Salcedo on loan.

Salcedo started out as a utility substitute for our right winger star Alexander Isak. Yet with less than a year training for us, he started to develop into a much more creative, important player. Now he not only scores goals (already 13!) but regularly features in the build up with one-twos and key assists. His top attributes like technique, dribbling, anticipation and off the ball make him into one of our most potent offensive threats.

And because the training is copied to the youth teams, its impact is already reaching the next generation of Txuri-urdinak. Here is a glimpse of one star in the making, who I suspect might become Sociedad’s version of Sergio Busquets.

At 18 years-old he is already breaking scoring records in his deep midfield role for our Under-19 team. While his passing and vision might be lacking, young Garitano’s technique, anticipation, and decisions are exceptional for his age.

So hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. It confirmed to me that even when there is no win in sight, there is still something to celebrate. Even during the darkest days. In football manager, planting the seed for the future can be as rewarding as winning trophies. All you need to do is persevere and never lose hope.

If you liked this then follow us on @ Dictate The Game’s Facebook and Dictate The Game’s Twitter. And check the complementary companion article about Athletic Bilbao from our fellow writer OldLadyPlays here:

And some of our other articles you might enjoy:

Written by crusadertsar


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