FM13 at Mladost: So near and yet so far…
And so my second season in Serbia has come to an end. I feel I’m starting to get to grips with this – not just with the team but aspects of the game, particularly team talks which I may have been making a hash of for ages without noticing. By the end of the season I had managed to avoid getting into a major slump – we were losing games, sometimes even convincingly, but we weren’t into the dramatic tailspin of the second quarter of the season.
Eventually we came up just short of European qualification, although I had resigned myself to defeat a few matches before the end when we were finding it particularly difficult to hold on to wins. It was a very competitive battle, with a number of teams surging up the table in the second half, and I assumed that with our inconsistent form, we’d inevitably slip down to an ultimately meaningless mid-table position – fine when you consider we were “expected” to be relegated and my official aim was to avoid relegation, but enormously disappointing considering we had been battling for a top 4 finish all season.
In the end, a couple of wins in the last few matches saw us leapfrog back up the table to take 5th, only a point behind Jagodina – with ties decided by head-to-head record, we were a point away from a Europa League spot, as we had won 1 and drawn 1 against them this season. What ultimately let us down, though, was not Jagodina’s surprise draw on the final day against Red Star, but a run of 4 defeats in 6 matches in April and May. Granted, this included defeats to Rad and Partizan, who finished 1st and 3rd respectively, but it also included a sloppy defeat to Sloboda Uzice – yet again we lost to the side who were bottom at the time, and conceded 3 goals in the process. I’ve no idea why this keeps happening but it’s daft. We also led a few games but came away only with draws or defeats, including the visit of Red Star. I’m particularly disappointed that we failed to beat the top 3 in a match this season – 1 win would have been nice as I don’t want to end up as a pathetic David Moyes-esque figure unable to get results against the top teams.
We had much less of a balance between home form and away form this year, which is a bit odd. Whereas last year we lost twice at home and 5 times away, this year we again only lost twice at home but this time had 7 defeats on the road. We actually had more wins away from home last year (9 vs 8 at home), but this time we won just 5 times away, versus the 8 at home. It’s odd how a change of league can create a shift like that.
I did the bulk of the contractual work during the winter break in order to snap up the best available players early, something I didn’t do last year because I didn’t know what league I would be in or what money I would have to spend. This should allow us to take a step forward. Out will go some of our older players – left-winger Nermin Useni has announced his retirement at the age of 34, although I wasn’t going to offer him a new deal anyway, and Tiago Silva, who is the same age but is on a much more significant £2,100 a week, is also going to be released. Betolngar, Ristanovic and Zdravkovic are the other first team players on their way, with plenty of reserves joining them. We don’t have financial issues but the 25 man squads put a limit on the players we can keep, so if they’re not capable of playing at this level, they’re going.
But while my initial signings focused on strengthening the midfield and both full-back positions, I’ve come to realise that actually there may be a hidden danger at centre-back. I noticed playing against the more talented sides in the league that we were susceptible on the counter, because those better players would just storm straight through the defence without my defenders making an effort to stop them. I think this is meant to represent my centre-backs not being quick enough. Coaches in the game never seem to pick up on what a problem pace can be – this is something I’ve noticed with a few teams – so Filipovic and Milunovic are still rated very highly, even though they aren’t the quickest. They will no doubt work great with a quicker centre-back alongside them, so I’m looking to bring another with more pace to do just that.
The good thing is the average age of the squad is coming down. Only 2 of my 6 signings so far is over 30, while some of the older guys I signed to add experience last summer are on their way out as they have either declined rapidly or had already dropped off before even arriving. The core of youngsters, most of whom were already here before I arrived such as Avramovic, Filipovic and Milunovic, are what the side should and will be built around. Pantelic will continue to get the starting berth as long as he keeps scoring, but Grujicic is an able replacement and still developing well despite a disappointing season this time around.
The future for the team looks very bright. If the players I have signed are as good as my scouts have told me (and that’s no sure thing), I think we can take another step forward next season – I could probably resign now and they would still do pretty well without me. It’ll be difficult to challenge the Big Two, but Rad have proven it’s possible to beat them. A top 4 finish is a realistic possibility. While this team have caused me a lot of stress and frustration of late, I think this is starting to come good and I don’t intend on leaving just yet.