Soooooo, you know when I said I’d blog every week about my Benfica save? That has, unfortunately, failed to happen. Barely two months into the season, I realised that I didn’t have the time to play it regularly – let alone write up everything that was going on.
Now that I’m two seasons in though, it feels like time for a quick update. By plugging you quickly back into the narrative of the first two seasons, I hope it’ll make it much easier to keep up with the save for readers and writers.
So here’s what’s been going down in my Benfica save over the past two years and a quick note on where it’s going next.
Setting the scene
Before I dive into the season summary, I thought it’d be worth reminding everyone why I’m managing Benfica.
The answer is simple: the Guttmann Curse. Put on the club in the 1960s by outgoing coach Bela Guttmann, the curse has (allegedly) prevented Benfica from winning another European trophy since his departure.
My aim as Benfica manager is to act as the footballing equivalent of an exorcist. I must break the curse by delivering the club European glory, or fail in the attempt. And while I’m at it, it’d be nice to do it while playing some stylish football along the way.
So how has it gone so far? The answer is mehhhhh.
Season 1: So close, yet so far
Season 1 of the save ended in absolute agony. Despite an extraordinary run to the Champion’s League final, during which we picked off the likes of Lyon and Paris St Germain, we ended up succumbing to the Guttmann curse once again against the mighty of Barcelona.
It was an exceptionally deflating way to end what was a good season. While we tumbled out of both domestic cups at the semi final stage, somewhat annoyingly, I was delighted with the way we dominated the league – battering aside our rivals with ease.
Switching between a 4-3-3 and a 4-5-1 with two central midfielders, depending on how our opponents lined up, we finished the season on 83 points and lost 3 games throughout the whole season (two of the defeats coming once the title was done).
Stand out players for the season included:
• Raul Jimenez, who defied my low expectations to finish the league season with 16 goals.
• Nico Gaitan, the Argentinian left winger, who created 13 league goals and bagged a further 8 for himself too.
• Nicolas Tagliafico and Lucas Otavio, who strengthened my left back and centre mid berths respectively while also being young, dead cheap and delightfully reliable.
• Renato Sanches. Because come on, it’s Renato. Just look at his stats a few seasons in. Phwoar.
Unfortunately though, Renato did betray my love for him in the worst possible way. In the crucial Champion’s League final, he got himself sent off in 35 minutes – condemning us to combat Messi and co with 10 men, which resulted eventually in a disappointing 2-1 defeat.
So although we made a good fist of things in Year One, the curse nevertheless remained firmly in place as we headed on our Summer holidays.
Season 2 – One shambolic month ruins it all
Season 2 started off in worrying style. It wasn’t because we were playing badly or were out of sorts from the off – on the contrary.
New signings such as Geronimo Rulli settled in quickly, I fended off bids for some of my leading players (including a derisory offer for Gaitan from Juve) and youngsters such as Frederico Venancio looked to be establishing themselves well enough.
But the signs were there that things weren’t quite working. In particular, the solid 4-2-3-1 shape that I had called upon towards the latter part of the Season 1 began to falter in key matches.
A 2-0 defeat in the Super Cup against Porto was unlucky because I actually won it 4-0 before a really annoying game crash, But in the match that counted, we came under near constant pressure and failed to create meaningful chances – a pattern repeated in a fluky 2-1 win against Man United and against Braga in the league.
As a result, I braced myself for a forthcoming FM storm. But even I didn’t think they it would be such a short and powerful one, capable of ripping apart the purpose of a season in a month.
First, and actually slightly prior to our utterly awful 30 days, we lost in the Portuguese cup against a lower league side. Despite the fact that we battered them all game, our youngsters couldn’t break through and then lost on a penalty shoot out.
Second, we blew a hefty lead in the league. Shuffling down from a nine point lead to a four point lead, with a defeat to newly promoted Chaves dragging us down, we looked in real danger of being hauled in by our rivals Porto and Braga.
Third, we also got off to a really bad start in the Portuguese league cup. Losing 3-1 to Pacos Ferreira, with Diogo Jota scoring twice against us cutting in from the left, it felt like things couldn’t get much worse.
Except they already had. Despite that win against Manchester United, we finished bottom of a Champion’s League group containing Shakhtar and Celtic. Our performances in there were so bad that I wouldn’t even get a chance to break the Guttmann curse in the Europa League. Disastrous, I know.
So I did what any FM player would do and I changed things up. Though I liked the youthful spirit of my squad, bolstered by a fair few youngsters promoted justifiably from the under 19s, I needed quality and stat.
I signed Paolo Oliveira from Chelsea to reinforce the centre back position, and provide a foil to the impressive Juan Jesus who I signed in the summer. I prevented Jota from scoring against us again by bringing him in to support my attack. And I also nabbed Sven Bender from Dortmund to bring some destructive experience to our midfield.
But I also did something else. Fed up with the failings of my 4-2-3-1 and inspired by a thorough reading of Pep Confidential, I set up a new version of my 4-3-3 and pinned my hopes on it.
Pushing the line up much higher, pressing actively, inverting the wingers, overlapping aggressively with my full backs (which, admittedly, is not what Pep did at Bayern) and encouraging Sanches and Talisca, my playmaker, to move forward, we sought to dominate the ball, harass our opponents and whip the league to make up for our failings.
The results were staggering. From the point we started playing the system, we conceded seven and scored a whopping 41 in 21 matches. Aside from a solitary defeat in the league cup, we lost nothing for the rest of the season – dominating matches and winning the title with only the defeat against Chaves to our name.
So although the European failure haunted the tail end of the season, many players emerged with serious credit including:
• Geronimo Rulli, who kept 21 clean sheets in 29 matches during the season.
• Renato Sanches, who finished the season with an average rating of 7.94 and cleaned up during awards season.
• Nelson Semedo, who spent the majority of the season rampaging from right back in terrifying fashion.
• Diogo Jota, who scored 7 and assisted 8 times in an impressively short 18 games.
Still, problems did arise during the six month rampage. Bender never settled in effectively, making him a costly option to help us close out games. Our strikers struggled all season, with Jimenez and Richairo Zivkovic, signed from Ajax in the summer, both struggling to score consistently. And the club’s finances, dented by a hefty spend in January, looked to be taking a turn for the worse – forcing me to consider some big name player sales.
But with the new system in place and the team clicking, the third season feels like much more of an opportunity to break the curse than the second season ever did.
So, I failed to achieve my objectives in either season of my save so far. The board has been happy with my performance, but until I win a trophy in Europe, I can’t be happy.
Season three, though, marks a real opportunity to change that. But to do it, I will need to:
• Find a striker who can both play in the runners breaking through massed ranks of defenders and who can score consistently.
• Bring down the club’s wage bill and sell a couple of prospects to ensure that the club’s future is sustainable.
• Ensure the sale of youth prospects doesn’t hit my home grown quota too hard, to make sure I have the strongest squad possible in Europe.
Breaking the Guttmann curse is proving to be a challenge. But I’m hoping that this season will be the time I finally kill the bugger off.
And I will be trying to keep better tabs on how that progresses. That means you’ll get weekly updates on the save on the podcast and half season updates from this save when I reach that point.
So make sure you keep your eye on the blog, our Twitter and Facebook for more details. And if you have anything you’d like to find out from me about my save, drop a tweet @TheDeepLyingPod and I’ll try to make a post about it in the future.