It should come to no surprise to anybody who’s been around my content before that I’ll be taking a pragmatic approach to my tactical blueprint for SJK. I have a way that I like to play the game, shapes, roles and player profiles that I rely on above others – but right now I’m walking into a club I know very little about and evaluating a squad I know nothing about. So right now the blueprint is to fashion something that suits the players at my disposal and build towards my long term goal.
This was my first iteration, as the shape suits our squad composition; we have good depth in defensive areas, an industrious but not overly creative midfield, and a diminutive number 10 to play in behind a big man/little man combo. Within two pre-season friendlies though, I knew this wasn’t sustainable. I was aiming for quick transitions, devastating direct counter attacks and plenty of crosses for the strikers to get onto. What I actually got was aimless balls forward, very few chances created and a huge disconnect between the front three and the rest of the side.
After some tweaks, this is what I’ve settled on for the basis of my tactic – at least for this season. The midfielders have been pushed up for a couple of reasons; firstly, to help with transitions – by having them further up the pitch they’re more available for the quicker, more direct passes we’re looking to play. Secondly, it allows me to harness the talents of Pyry Hannola as a Mezzala, my link between the midfield and the front three. Pyry is technically gifted, either footed and makes smart decisions but is also decent in the tackle and has a big frame at 6ft tall, which makes him my top pick in the centre of midfield. The number 10 role, occupied almost exclusively by Diego Rojas, has been changed from an Advanced Playmaker to a Shadow Striker. I very rarely use a system that doesn’t have any playmaker roles, hence my original decision, but Rojas is so technically superior to everybody in our squad, and arguably most of the division, that I want him to have the licence to be my agent of chaos. I want him scoring and creating, so the hard coded instruction for Advanced Playmakers to shoot less often was enough for me to make the change.
The instructions have had a little tweak too; the passing length has been reduced to try to add some variation to our play, rather than hitting aimless long balls for the sake of it. Run at Defence has been added to allow some players to try to break the lines, mainly the wing-backs and Rojas in the hole behind the strikers. I’ve also asked the side to press more often, mainly because I forgot to put it in when I first created the tactic. 🙈
This is where my tactical plan is far different to my previous saves. I’m pretty guilty of going into matches with a tactic – possibly after a few opposition dependent tweaks – but then not really paying much attention when in-game, only depending on the amount of highlights for each side to get a feel for the flow of the game rather than analysing what’s actually happening. Since the introduction of the match momentum analysis I’ve been looking at that too, but still haven’t been picking out patterns of play to affect in-game scenarios. This year, I’m making a conscious effort to make multiple smaller changes and giving them 10-20 minute spells to see if they can make an impact.
Most commonly it’s a shift of tempo. I’ve been starting matches at a standard tempo in the majority of matches, but in games where I feel we’re comfortably the superior team I’ve been upping the tempo by a notch to try and increase our play’s intensity and grab an early goal. It hasn’t always been successful, obviously in football nothing is ever guaranteed, but I did have consecutive matches against AC Oulu away and HIFK at home where I started on the slightly higher tempo and scored in the 2nd minute vs Oulu and 8th minute vs HIFK, winning both matches in the process. I’ve also been dropping the tempo at times where I feel we need to regain a modicum of control; often, this is directly after we’ve scored a goal, but can also be in games against stronger opponents where we’re struggling to break out in transition or we’re just struggling to get any periods of possession.
In a recent game away to HJK (still the best side in Finland despite their poor form this season) we started with our basic tactic outlined at the start of this post. The first 15 minutes gave me the impression that our more direct style wasn’t going to be sustainable, so I dropped the tempo to try and calm us down and improve our ball share, and although it didn’t work out in the end, the large spike you can see in the momentum chart above came directly after the tweaks. Tactical naivety on my part meant that when HJK predictably took back control I didn’t do enough to react, and despite ending the game well it cost us as a late goal saw us lose 1-0.
The other changes I’ve been making have been tweaking the In Possession instructions, trying to adjust the dynamic of our attacks to find an edge. If we start a game well or I feel we’re the side most likely to be capable of dominating the ball I’ll drop the passing length and lose the Pass Into Space and Run at Defence instructions, and will also have spells where we take off Hit Early Crosses and either leave it or swap it for Work Ball into Box. I haven’t used it yet but I’ve also had previous success with focusing play on a particular side to exploit a weakness, so that’s certainly something I’ll look to use going forward if the opportunity calls.
Out of possession things don’t change anywhere near as much, although I have experimented with a low block in a couple of European ties (more on these later!) and in certain league games I’ve maintained the mid block but pushed the defensive line higher if we’ve faced a particularly slow attack or a team we feel we’re too good for.
PROGRESS SO FAR…
Unfortunately this update is coming at a weird time, a combination of Finland’s unconventional season span and the fact that my life has been hectic with a house purchase means that PC time has been at a minimum, so I’ve been focused on playing rather than blogging. However, we sit in a really strong position as we approach the end of season one. We have 3 games left of the league campaign and sit merrily at the top of the league, a point clear but with a game in hand. The further the season has gone on, the more I have realised that despite not having overly creative central midfielders we are definitely good enough on the ball to dominate possession against the majority of teams we’ll face. That means we’ll be looking to adjust to a more possession oriented system over the course of the next pre-season, although at this point I’m fairly sure the shape will remain the same. Before that though, we need to see this out!
As well as the league campaign, domestically we’ve been competing for the Suomen Cup, a competition that SJK won for the first time back in 2016. Our board aim was to reach the Quarter Final, which meant qualifying from a group stage and one knockout round as a minimum.
The group stage happens before the league kicks off, so our first game against AC Oulu was our first ever competitive fixture, and the rest were all intertwined with our huge amount of friendlies. I wanted to use the group stage as a chance to offer rotation and do more to figure out our best system and line-up, but with the requirement to progress I had to take it seriously. Luckily we hit the ground running, winning the first three games to guarantee qualification, and then securing a draw and a narrow defeat with heavily rotated sides.
The start of the knockout rounds should have been a dream, being drawn against Ykkönen side Ekenäs IF, 1 of only 4 from the second tier, in the second round. A slightly rotated side (but one I’d still happily pick for a league match) laboured to an uncomfortable 1-0 win after extra time, and onwards we moved to the Quarters, where we would face Gnistan – another Ykkönen side.
Yet again we made life difficult for ourselves, dominating over 90 minutes but conceding an 83rd minute equaliser against the run of play to again go to extra time. This time we turned it back on to secure the result, scoring 3 times in extra time to bag a 4-2 win.
From there it was back to Veikkausliiga opposition in KuPS for the Semi Final. We actually made this look easier than the ties previously, although an inability to finish our chances meant we only won 1-0 in a game we should have scored 3 or 4 in. Back at the Quarter Final draw, I took to my channel in the FM Library Discord to share my thoughts on how the competition could pan out…
Call me Mystic Meg – the fates kept us apart and we did in fact face HJK, the strongest team in Finland, for the chance to win silverware in our first season.
Having been set a board objective of finishing in the top three places in the league, I was obviously aware that we were one of the strongest teams in the country at the start of the season, however, coming into a division completely unknown to me I had no eyes on winning the cup in season one. This was my first encounter with HJK too, so to take first blood and get a trophy in the process was a great achievement!
In a season where we’ve won silverware and could potentially wrap a league title, it shocks me to say that the Europa Conference League is my proudest achievement of the season. Here we are though, and there’s a very good reason why!
I didn’t really know what to expect going into our first European campaign, but based on coefficients alone we were ranked as the fourth worst side in the whole competition, below our opponents, Europa FC from Gibraltar. We needn’t have worried, as we blew them away at home before securing the tie with a rotated side in the second leg.
I thought this would be where our ‘run’ would end. Craiova are a very decent Romanian side, but with a little tactical tweak from yours truly, we trounced them. We dropped one of the strikers back and played with two number 10’s who were given the license to swap positions and drift wide to occupy their defensive midfielders and hopefully drag their back three out of position and leave Monreal one on one to dominate a single defender. It worked a treat, as we secured an astonishing 4-1 away win where Monreal was unplayable with 2 goals and 2 assists. Still nervous of the quality they had relative to us, we didn’t change a thing for the second leg and sealed the tie with a 1-0 win in front of our fans.
Having thought that Craiova would be the end of the road for us I was obviously delighted to progress, especially as SJK have never progressed through two rounds in a single European campaign. What delighted me even more though, was the team we were drawn to face in the Third Qualifying Round.
Besiktas are a giant of Turkish football, last winning their league in 2020/21 and playing in the Champions League Group Stage in 2021/22. They have an annual wage expenditure of £29.61m compared to our 844k. If this sounds like the start of an amazing underdog story I’ll kill that dream here – Besiktas did knock us out as expected. We did give it a very good go though!
In the first leg we were far too passive and showed them far too much respect, particularly in the first half. We reverted to the original shape at the start of this post with the 2 DM’s and also utilised a low block for the first time. Their quality showed throughout and despite grabbing a goal we never really threatened them, the gulf in class was very obvious.
The second leg was a different story, 9 incredibly dedicated and lucky fans will always be able to talk about the day they travelled all the way to Turkey to see the minnows of SJK defeat Besiktas! We reverted back to out standard shape but kept the low block, trying to make life as difficult for them as possible, and we certainly succeeded, with just 3 of their 23 shots hitting the target on the way to accumulating 2.42 xG. We still didn’t really put any sustained pressure on them, but as the game wore on we started to break their spirits, and after a decision to try and gain a bit more ball share by shortening the passing we had a spell that led to a late penalty. Martti Haukioja, a player 99% sure to leave on a free at the end of his contract, was left to become the hero as he slotted away to give us the most unlikely of leads! This left me a dilemma, as the victory in itself would be incredible, but one more late goal would see us progress, something nobody including ourselves thought possible at any time throughout the tie! I decided to risk the on the night result for glory, stuck another striker on and went for it.
Sadly we couldn’t find that all important goal, but the magnitude of this victory and what we achieved with this campaign can’t be understated. Besiktas are likely to be the biggest side we’ll face in the first 5 or 6 years of this save unless we get an unbelievable draw in Champions League qualifying assuming we get there at some point. Our squad is nowhere near ready to compete with this calibre of team, and to be honest 9 times from 10 we’d have lost that second leg, but this will live long in the memory and probably goes down as my biggest ever giant killing on Football Manager.
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