FM13 at Mladost: Dry, rinse, repeat…
Look only at the table and you would assume that I’d be happy with how the first half of my first season in the SuperLeague was going – 4th place, when I was only expected to avoid relegation, is pretty positive. But a look at the fixture list tells a different story.
Until our defeat to struggle BSK Borca in late October, we had been looking very good for a top 3 finish. We were virtually unbeatable – even our match at Red Star Stadium was a positive, as we only narrowly lost and played well. But the BSK Borca defeat, coming off the back of a couple of games where I seemed to be unable to motivate my players in the team talks (always a sign of trouble ahead) began the sort of chain reaction I always fear with FM – one defeat leads to another as you “drop off the cliff”, unable to do anything about it because the players first refuse to respond and then lose all their confidence.
The Vozdovac game was perhaps the key one as it cemented it as a longer run of form, followed by a thrashing at the hands of Vojvodina, which included Carboni getting sent off for a second yellow card for diving. That meant he missed the game at Partizan, where we again played well and initially took the lead thanks to Pantelic, but, as has so often been the case with this team, we weren’t able to hold on. It’s frustrating to get high ratings at that point, because the game bases all its reactions off what is a highly objective rating and yet you know your players haven’t done a good job as they’ve thrown away a win at a struggling side. I criticised them for it, which led to positive reactions at the time, but these reactions are often misleading as the players’ confidence remains damaged.
The draw against unbeaten Rad, with whom it has been difficult even for Red Star to live with this season, was a nice boost but we weren’t able to sustain it. We again drew over 90 minutes in our Serbian Cup quarter-final with OFK Belgrade, but lost on penalties. A humiliating defeat against Smederova left us 7 games without a win, our worst run yet, though it still felt like a carbon copy of our great start-turned-struggle of the first half of last season. But we managed to end this half of the season with a win, which gives us a bit more confidence and hope heading into the winter break.
In terms of the players, Pantelic has been every bit as good as I hoped, banging in 10 goals in 17 appearances. He may not have the highest average rating in the team but he has been the outstanding performer in the league. Those with a higher average are often those who played in my “cup team”, like Nermin Useni and Washington, who found the minnows in the early rounds easy pickings. The 6 ft 8 Brazilian striker hasn’t played in the league, though, due to the restrictions on foreign players, which make it difficult for him to break in ahead of the Silvas, Carboni and Barbosa.
My mind is already starting to turn to next season. Despite our terrible run at the end, we should now survive at the very least. Out of my 26 man squad, 20 players’ contracts are set to expire. Several of these are the wrong side of 30, including Tiago Silva, Useni and Darko Savic, and they will probably move on. I am also struggling to make a case for keeping Betolngar, who is a bit redundant now that we are only playing 1 up front, especially as he is so injury-prone.
On the plus side, I have already secured a further year’s extension for Pantelic, as even though he will be 35 by the end of the season, he probably has another year left in him at this level. Though so many of the players now have extremely low wages compared to the top earners (as low as £85 a week compared to Carboni’s £2,700), we have plenty of budget space for any further renewals if as expected some start asking for “big” money. I’ve also got goalkeepers Andrey Zaitsev and Sasa Stamenkovic, who joined on a free after I wrote my season preview, on longer contracts, which means I’m pretty set for keepers for a while.
Alongside this, I also have 14 players out on loan at the moment. Most of these probably won’t come to anything but at least they are out there gaining experience – maybe one or two will develop into ready-made replacements for the older guys. It’s a nice little setup here – much of the first team squad is under the age of 25 and is projected to develop further. We have a really good core of talented players and it should serve us well into the future.
Now that I’ve calmed down after our terrible run (I was furious when it was happening last night), I’m much happier about the state of the club – now that I know our financial position is secure and I have players capable of pushing on, I’m happy to stay for a while yet, and the board are happy with my performance. We definitely have the basics in place to challenge Partizan and Red Star into the future.
The problem is Rad seem to have got there before us – after finishing 2nd last year, they look like they’re on their way to the title this year, and so will be the first team since Obilic to beat both of the giants to the Serbian championship. With Nenad Milijas and Red Star breathing down their necks, though, it’s not over yet.