Benfica – Conveyor Belt to the Stars | Ep13: I did it my way | Football Manager 2019 Stories

“And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain”

Season 5. We are approaching the final season of our challenge to win the Champions League with a team consisting entirely of U21 players. Before we dive into the adventures of our final season let’s sit back and look at how we’ve done so far. Perhaps you’re new to the series and want a “quick” recap or perhaps you’re a loyal reader and just want to enjoy it all over again. Anyway, I’m gonna try to summarise our first four seasons and I’m gonna do it to the tune of Frank Sinatra.

“My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain”

The idea of the series

I’ve always been a sucker for youth development in FM. There is nothing more satisfying than cultivating your 5 star potential youth intake wonderkid into a world-beating grown man. I wanted to take it one step further though, I wanted to test whether it was possible or not to turn a team of only youngsters (U21 players to be more exact) into a footballing superpower. The ultimate proof that you are one of the true greats? The Champions League title!

I chose to try the challenge with Portuguese club Benfica for two reasons. First of all I really enjoyed a brief side save with them in FM18 and wanted to give it a go again. Secondly, they have great youth facilities and a squad packed with talent!

I gave the Original Ronaldo the job as manager and set him up with a difficult set of rules for this challenge:

  1. He is only allowed to sign players aged 18 or younger.
  2. All players, no exceptions, must be sold as soon as they turn 22.

This meant that Ronaldo was only able to use players aged 16 to 21 in his endeavors to conquer Europe. The goals were as simple and clear as the rules:

  1. Keep the job!
  2. Win the Europa League within 5 years and/or the Champion’s League within 10 years!

For a couple of different reasons I later on changed the second goal of the series to simply winning the Champions League within 5 years.

“I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention”

The beginning

It all started with a massive fire sale. All the players aged 22 or above had to go! Let’s get rid of the dead wood and bring in some cash to sign wonderkids!

Transfers ut

The total sum the fire sale brought in landed on €120M, with no single transfer bringing in more than €25M. Six loan deals were made bringing in around €900K per month. Around ten more players were loaned out for free and around 40 players were released from their contracts.

Naturally, all the transfers and transfer listings lead to a lot of unrest, but nothing that manager Ronaldo couldn’t handle. If you’re used to partying in the Favelas, you can certainly handle the moaning of a few Portuguese millionaires. The solution to the problem was a pragmatic one as well, just get rid of the moaners as quickly as possible! It worked like a charm and Ronaldo managed to keep his job at least through the pre-season!

However, after the massive purge manager Ronaldo was left with a first team consisting of 14 players between the ages of 17 and 21. There was an obvious need to improve the squad, both from a depth and a quality perspective. With the restriction of only being allowed to sign players aged 18 or younger, manager Ronaldo found himself within a market full of more or less unfinished products. Potential was therefore the key factor when looking for new players.

Transfers in

Ronaldo tried to balance the pressure of the board’s expectations of a league win with the long term goal of winning the Champions League by signing both players to contribute straight away and also high potential players that can develop over time.

squad

After a really busy transfer window, Ronaldo started the first season with an exciting and talented 23 man squad at his disposal. With an average age of 18.74 and only 4 players aged 21, the squad certainly looked built for the future but hopes were that the team would be competitive straight away.

The primary aim of the first season was to qualify for next year’s Champions League which would hopefully be enough to keep Ronaldo at his post as manager. The secondary aim was, of course, to keep bringing in young talented players and develop them into world class players! Let’s start the conveyor belt to the stars!

“I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way”

Season 1 – 2018/19

The players impressed pundits all over the world with solid results and a first place finish in the Champions Leaguegroup. Sure, this wasn’t the toughest of groups and form declined a bit towards the end, but still an impressive result!

ChL tabell

The award for their hard work was the toughest possible, FC Barcelona in the first knock-out round. Despite being the better team over the two legs both chance and possession-wise Benfica didn’t manage to score, which is what football is all about. Two goals from the feet of Leo Messi saw Barcelona advance to the 2nd knockout round, but the Benfica players could still feel more than proud of their performance in the Champions League.

A league win ahead of fierce rivals FC Porto saw the team qualify for the group stage of next season’s Champions League.

“I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way”

Ahead of season 2019/20 – The rise of the Phoenix Eagle

The league win meant that manager Ronaldo kept his job even though many fans had been sceptical about last season’s change of strategy. A lot of loved members of both squad and staff had left and been replaced by more or less unknown youngsters.

Ahead of the second season manager Ronaldo invented the Eagle Rating or Classificaçao da Águia in an attempt to create a bit of Club DNA and unite the fans.

Six attributes were defined as most important and players would from now on be assessed based on the following attributes, significant for true eagles:

  • Work rate
  • Teamwork
  • Vision
  • Anticipation
  • Determination
  • Decisions

The Classificaçao da Águia or CdÁ also resulted in a modified strategy when signing new players. Ideally the players who were brought into the club in the future would have:

  • A potential of 4.5-5 stars
  • A CdÁ of 60 or higher
  • A Determination of at least 10

This scouting strategy would hopefully provide the club with Academy players with enough potential to become world class players and the mental abilities to realise their massive potential!lagen.png

To increase the chances of the club’s top quality talents developing in the right way a player development plan was produced and the players were divided into four units. The 11 currently best players were put in A1 to play all the important games, with A2 playing the rest of the league and cup games. 18-19-year-olds were put in the B squad to play senior games in the second division while the 16-17-year-olds would be pitted against U19 and U23 players domestically and abroad.

This was very much a work for future gains. Looking at the current situation going into the second season it was once again time for a rebuild.

Transfers ut.png

Eighteen players left the club. The majority were players that we didn’t manage to sell in the original fire sale the previous season. This year we got a bit of money for a couple of them, while others were simply released. Jiménez, Cervi and Zivkovic left for decent money, albeit far less than their actual value.

The departure of all these players made a bit of room for new arrivals. Ronaldo had started building for the future, and a big part of that was to bring in new kids to the Academy.

Transfers in

With around €60M spent 26 young players came in. Brandon Baiye, Tom Krauss and Steven Dolan were the most expensive signings and these three together with another four new players were promoted to the B squad.

IN4 Bayie
IN4 Krauss
IN4 Dolan
Squad A

The A squad going into the 2019/20 season was filled with talent but seemed to lack the capacity to fight against the big dogs of Europe. Therefore I gave us a Predicted chance of a Champions League title in 2019/20: 5 percent

“Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way”

Season 2 – 2019/20

CL tabell

Finishing dead last in our Champions League group and not even qualifying for Europa League is a disappointment. Considering that we gave ourselves a 5 percent chance of winning this wasn’t a shock, but I would have liked at least a bit of a Europa League run.

A table

However, we’ll get another chance next season since we won the league title. It never got exciting and we won our second title in a row.

Transfers ut2

We lost some really important pieces of the puzzle though, which will certainly make things more difficult. For a total sum of just above €120M up front three of our best players left the club. I wasn’t particularly interested in selling any of them, but a combination of getting unsettled by the big club interest and release fee clauses forced me into it. The harsh reality is that we were not top of the food chain at the moment, but when our best young players leave for sums like the ones above it certainly softens the blow of them leaving. It’s another setback for our short-term plans but a leap forward when looking at the possibility to invest into the future!

A tactical analysis

taktik.png

After the second season I wrote three pieces on our tactics analysing both the players and the positions/roles that we’ve used.

Defenders

Midfielders

Attackers

The analysis boiled down to three things really stood out for me:

  1. The difference in offensive output between a CWB with an attacking role vs a supporting role was much bigger than the difference in defensive output in the attacking role’s favour. This lead me to playing with attacking roles on both flanks for the coming season.
  2. The box-to-box midfielder wasn’t really working the way I wanted him to. He didn’t cover enough distance and didn’t contribute enough compared to the CM(a). Therefore I changed the midfield role of the player next to my CM(a) from a BTB to a CM(s) for the coming season.
  3. The lone striker role. This was a tough one. I really wanted all the benefits that a CF brings, but I think it’s too much to ask from my young players. None of them carried the complete toolbox needed for the role. I needed to think and tweak and think a bit more before I made up my mind what role to choose, but a change was needed.

One final thing that didn’t show in this tactical series but became obvious when I did the statistical analysis was a problem of game time. It appeared that both the B squad and  U19 squad were overcrowded compared to the number of games available. This lead to us having 11 (healthy) players with 0 to 5 games played this season, which is devastating in a player development perspective. This needed to be addressed immediately, either by finding a way to distribute game time better or by simply offloading players.

“I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing”

Season 3 – 2020/21

The problem of overcrowding became much bigger overnight since I had gotten a bit carried away in the transfer market during last season!

Många transfers.png

When the transfer window opened no less than 24 players stood there knocking on the door to the training ground. 24 new players coming into a system already suffering from serious overcrowding. Changes needed to be made.

Squads.png

Above you see the entire Benfica squad divided into positions and different years of birth going into the 2020/21 season. The names above the grey line were the best eleven from each age group. Below the grey line were players that simply weren’t among the best eleven. Wow, I didn’t exaggerate when I wrote that I had gotten a bit carried away in the transfer market. My solution to the problem of overcrowding was simple, most of the players below the grey line had to be mercilessly be sold or released.

I went through each age group in detail highlighting the best players in a separate post, but here I’ll go straight to the overview of what the final A squad looked like.

A Squad

The A squad consisted mainly of players born in 1999 and 2000 with some exceptions. Looking at current ability we had midfielder Gedson Fernandes at 4.5 stars, Sandro Tonali and Pedro Álvaro at 4 and five other players at 3.5 stars. The squad looked well-rounded except for the wing back position.

We lacked depth and we lacked quality in some positions. Therefore I had the feeling that this would be another year more focused on sowing than reaping.

I predicted our chances of winning the Champions League this season at 10%

CL tabell.png

We performed better than the previous season. A lot better. We won our group ahead of European giants Man City and Real Madrid and were therefore awarded with a 1st knockout game against a 2nd placed team.

CL1.png

Roma was pretty much a dream draw for us compared to the other teams. Quite an unusual but pleasant feeling to go into the first knockout round as favorites and we managed to live up to the expectations. Two solid performances later and we were through to the quarter final!

CL2.png

We continued to impress at home against giants Liverpool in the first quarter final leg, and hopes began to rise of a potential historic win. These hopes were however mercilessly crushed at Anfield. Liverpool won 4-1 and this season’s Champions League adventure ended at the quarter final stage. I’m quite impressed with us going this far with our young team, but we still feel quite far off being real contenders for the win.

A table.png

2nd in the league

The league was an utter disappointment. We finished 2nd in the Portuguese Premier League behind fierce rivals FC Porto, but well ahead of newly promoted comeback team Sporting. At least we got the chance to play Champions League football again next season.

“To think I did all that
And may I say – not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way”

Season 4

Vidare i CL.png

Let’s jump straight into the action. We’re one step closer to the aim of this series, the ultimate goal. The Champions League title!

CL grupp.png

With a 2nd place finish we knew we’d be pitted against one of the group winners.

CL knock1.png

We got Arsenal, which seems to be the best possible draw for us, considering the strength of the rest of the seeded teams. Arsenal will not be a push-over, that’s not what I’m saying, but compared to Real Madrid or Manchester United they look much more beatable.

CL knock 1 res.png

After two solid performances, we were through to the quarter-final once again. This is where things are really starting to get rough and it was at this point we were knocked out last season.

Well, there were no easy teams left, but Man City is potentially one of the toughest draws imaginable! We were going to face former Benfica players Sandro Tonali and Josha Vagnoman along with long term players de Bruyne, Laporte, Sterling and Aguero and new arrivals Icardi, Alli, Milinkovic-Savic and Dier. Quite the challenge for our young team!

CLkvart.png

We didn’t manage to stand up against the big boys this time around either. It seems to be our destiny to be knocked out in the Champions League quarter-final season after season. We’ll get one final chance at winning it all though since…

A table

…we won the league in quite comfortable fashion giving us a ticket straight into next season’s Champions League group stage.

At the end of the season we lost a lot of players as usual, but also received quite a lot of money in exchange. We go into the final season with nearly no “original players” left. Instead we have a heap of young talented players, ready to make one final push to win the Champions League and prove that you CAN win anything with kids!

A squad

For one final push manager Ronaldo decided to skip the age groups altogether and simply picked the 22 best players for the A squad in an attempt to give us the best possible chance to win the Champions League title in our fifth and final season of this challenge. This is a great squad, undoubtedly our best one yet, but the feeling is that we need a lot of luck to make it all the way.

Predicted chance of winning the Champions League: 20%

Whatever the results will be in our final season I’ve really enjoyed this series and I’ve stayed true to the rules and the true spirit of the challenge. In the next episode we’ll look at our final Champions League campaign. See you soon!

“For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way”


Thanks for reading another excellent post by Mikaelinho. You can follow him on Twitter here:


 

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