It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Sometimes it’s hard to know when one of these saves should stop.
With a so-called ‘journeyman,’ is it when you finally win a trophy? Is it when your beloved captain lifts the biggest continental cup? What about when you are offered the national team job? Perhaps when you’ve won x titles in y different countries, like a pentagon, octagon or dodecahedron challenge (hopefully not a thing)?
Maybe it’s when it hits 2137/38 and all the players are androids travelling to training in flying cars.
Sometimes it’s nothing quite as monumental. Sometimes it just feels right.
Season 2026 / 2027
WE DID IT! The Superleague Interwetten champions for the the third year back-to-back are Panathinaikos. Unbelievably, with a tally of exactly 88 points, for the third season in a row. You couldn’t write this! Although I of course am.
We also retained the domestic cup, after a lovely comeback brace by club legend Tomas Chory to beat Olympiakos 3-2.
What about our second successive year in the UEFA Champions League group stage?
We managed two incredible comeback victories over Ajax. The home game was won in the 96th minute, while the away match was decided in the 90th. Beautiful drama. It’s just a shame about the rest of the group stage results.
Our third place finish dropped us into the Europa League where we dismantled Atalanta 8-1 (!) on aggregate, before hitting a mini goal drought and losing 1-0 over two legs to a København side we should really have been beating. Well, I guess you can’t win them all.
The Key Players
Giannis Bouzoukis, in his favoured Deep Lying Playmaker role in the middle of the park had another unbelievable season. 25 assists in 47 games, 8.2 key passes per 90 minutes and an average rating of 7.71 across all competitions. That’s exactly 100 assists in four seasons. Beautiful.
Markus Eiane has proved to be one of the signings of the save. I brought him to Tromsø from Ranheim for £900k and he scored 34 league goals in 69 league games in Norway, but his best times under the management of Robert Vonsen were still ahead of him. He joined me at Panathinaikos for £2.8million and ended his second season in Greece with 32 goals in all competitions. He has 51 league goals in 65 league games. 71 goals in 94 games for Panathinaikos overall. Incredible numbers.
Club captain Andrade is a monster. His six foot six stature and tackling ability make him an incredible defensive unit. Throw in 13 vision and 14 passing, and he is capable of playing out from the back like peak Gerard Pique. Every big club in Europe and China has thrown multiple bids our way, but he has remained at Panathinaikos like a loyal soldier. The board almost sold him to Sevilla but thankfully I managed to convince them to say no.
Andrade deserves the captaincy, and his five winners medals. Probably my favourite centre back I’ve managed in FM21.
I often talk about Tomas Chory.
If I was having another child, I’d name them Tomas Chory. I’ve told my wife that her new name is now Tomas Chory and I’ve contacted the local council to officially change my house name to Chory View.
I’ll be honest. Robert Vonsen has watched his Panathinaikos side lift five trophies. He has won nine trophies in total across the three teams he has managed. But the perfect record of Tomas Chory being left undisturbed, and not hanging around to see his inevitable decline now that he is 32 years old is probably the main reason I am happy to call this save a day.
Tomas Chory was signed for just £55k from Viktoria Plzeň ahead of the 24/25 campaign and has been easily my favourite player in FM21 so far. I can’t believe he has never been capped, despite being called up to the Czech squad for the last World Cup.
His absurd record is 136 goals in 144 appearances in all competitions. Though when the last league game had finished and I noticed his league record, I knew this was too perfect to carry on and risk ruining.
Finishing the season on his perfect 100-100 league record plus bagging a double in the cup final to come back from 2-1 to beat Olympiakos 3-2 is pure football poetry.
What about this season’s signings?
I covered the three guys above in the last post. All three were solid. Most notably Nedzad Heric, who after just 45 appearances in a Panathinaikos shirt at right-back, is a man in demand.
Lino Costa broke into the first team and is now being chased by Milan. Einar Pétursson who followed me from Tromsø was a capable option from the bench.
Our other three signings this year were a success too.
Lindbøl slotted in directly on the left side of midfield and was industrious and occasionally spectacular. The £3m price tag may seem steep (although I don’t think so), first choice left midfielder Nikola Jambor had just suffered a five month injury so timing was everything.
On-loan Barcelona defender Pedro, who used to be ours before the Catalan giants took him from us, only to loan him back a year later, also suffered a serious injury. So £9k teenager Vrbnjak stepped into the first team like a seasoned veteran. I’d originally bought the big Croatian to develop him in the under 19s, but needs must, and he’s a much better player for the opportunity. Drazen is definitely ready to contend for a starting spot, even when everyone is fit.
Last but not least, the two young strikers above are not signings, but instead homegrown academy players. Both had to be called upon towards the end of the campaign as Robert Vonsen did his best Marcelo Bielsa impression. I.E. Running all of the players into the ground so extensive rotation was certainly required. Both are very strong prospects.
The Never-Ending Story
Robert Vonsen, now 46 years old, has gone from unemployed and barely a coach, to a fully qualified manager, winning nine trophies in three countries over seven years and leading Panathinaikos in the UEFA Champions League.
311 games managed, 204 wins, 64 draws and 43 defeats. Only £16.5million spent in seven years. Nine trophies.
Incredibly, in every season where Vonsen managed the club from start to finish, he saw his side lift the league trophy. From Romania’s second tier for U Craiova 1948 to the most recent Panathinaikos title win via glory at Tromsø, times have been good.
My end goal was to be in charge of one of the top playable sides in this save universe.
With none of the big European leagues available (no England, Spain, Italy, France, Germany etc), the top playable division reputationally ended up being the Greek Superleague, which I’ve just won three times in a row.
The two biggest playable teams in the save were RB Salzburg and Shakhtar from the beginning, but with their respective 2020 managers still in charge in 2027, with at least three years left each on their contracts, those jobs were never really going to come up.
As the only manager of a top 10 playable team in Europe with an ‘untouchable’ job status, having worked our way up from unemployed to nine trophies, I am happy to close the story here.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That is usually a resignation that despite improvements, events inevitably lead to the same disappointing result. In this case however, I mean it as a massive positive.
Loads of changes have occurred at Panathinaikos, but we carry on winning.
Now a fully-fledged holder of the coveted Continental Pro Licence and having already won the Super League Interwetten in his/my first full season in charge, Robert Vonsen has transformed Panathinaikos and his managerial career with it. (U Craiova 1948 -> Tromsø -> Panathinaikos)
Last season we won the Greek league title with 88 points, and guess what? We did it again. Exactly 88 points bagged again, and a trophy raised into the Athens air. This time by the 20-year old Brazilian Andrade, The Green‘s new captain. Half of Europe’s elite have been chasing the towering defender, but I’ve managed to keep him here so far.
We also won the Greek domestic cup! The ghost of losing the final to Olympiakos two years ago is finally exhumed. An even game as far as possession and xG are concerned but decided by two early first half strikes from the beautiful strike pairing of Markus Eiane and Tomas Chory. More on these two later.
What about Robert Vonsen‘s first foray into the UEFA Champions League, how did that go?
Despite putting 13 goals past Cork City, defeating Kazakh champions Astana and Danish champions FC København to qualify, the group stage which followed unfortunately ended in a 4th place finish.
A 4-2 home win against the mighty Lyon was a highlight, as was scoring twice against Juventus away and managing a 2-2 draw against Shakhtar, but four defeats meant our European campaign was over. It was good for the bank balance, great for the fans and a valuable experience for the players, but I hope for better luck next year.
Especially now that UEFA have allowed the Greek champions to slot straight into the group stage from now on, based on improved coefficients.
How did the players perform?
Let’s start with that strike force. The 2024/25 European Golden Shoe winner Tomas Chory, and one of my many signings from former club Tromsø, Markus Eiane.
Tomas Chory continued his absurd form from his first season and scored 49 goals in 47 appearances from 37.3 xG. 2.68 shots on target and 2.26 successful headers per 90. He just continues to shine. His league-only record is now 67 goals in 67 games.
When I signed Markus Eiane from my former employers for £2.4million; I had hoped that 1) he could make the step up required to play in Greece and 2) that he could complement Chory instead of getting in his way.
It worked. Eiane bagged 39 goals in 47 appearances from 29.6 xG. 2.85 shots on target and 2.69 successful headers per 90. Interestingly, Eiane also completed the third highest key passes in the squad per 90 (passes that result in the immediate receiver shooting at goal), with 2.22 per 90. Without reviewing the vault of video footage, I can guarantee that almost all of these were headed knock-downs or flick-ons for the prolific Chory.
I compared these two to their striking rivals across the division, and there was really no competition.
Chory is now 31 and Eiane is 25 but neither have ever been called up for Czech Republic or Norway respectively, despite their incredible form. A nice touch was realising that that was about to change.
Just like last year, Giannis Bouzoukis, now in his 13th season at Panathinaikos, continued to be our main creator of chances. This season, our deep-lying playmaker managed 35 assists in 46(1) appearances. He averaged an astonishing 8.95 key passes per 90 minutes played. I don’t think I’ve worked with a playmaker before who so regularly creates scoring opportunities. A 7.79 average rating across almost 50 games. There have been 75 assists in 3 seasons from the 28-year old, who is the crucial heartbeat of the team who have just won back-to-back titles. He still hasn’t been capped. I’m not sure what else he has to do to get into the Greece team.
I created the below to compare all ‘creative midfielders’ in the Superleague, and it was no surprise who came out as the most impressive. By a huge margin.
Special mention has to go to Sigurd Grønli (signed from Tromsø for £1.2million), who despite 19 of his 49 appearances this season coming from the bench, and adjusting to being primarily deployed on the right flank instead of the central playmaker role he played for me in Norway, he has performed really well.
His 19 assists was the second highest in the squad (after Bouzoukis of course), as was his 3.77 key passes per 90 minutes. In spite of the gaps in his defensive attributes and five foot seven frame, he also managed 1.89 successful tackles per 90 and bagged five goals himself.
We stuck with the flat 4-4-2 that had served us well last year, I just made a few changes to pivot to a more Cruyffian approach.
I adjusted the passing directness to ‘much shorter,’ asked the goalkeeper to distribute to our centre backs (one of whom I asked to take fewer risks), and changed our width to open and close like an accordion, narrow defensively but as wide as possible when attacking.
Despite my recruitment policy leading me to the two centre backs and two centre forwards all being six foot five at the shortest, the short passing system really worked, and was a joy to see in action.
Apart from Markus Eiane (10/10) and Sigurd Grønli (9/10), our other signings worked out quite nicely too.
Falcão is our natural Chory replacement when that fateful day eventually comes. Strong, good in the air, brave and hardworking but a great dribbler too, the Portuguese has something special. 11 goals from 8.5 xG in his (mostly substitute) appearances serves as a suggestion of what to expect in future. 7/10.
Jambor played as a ball-carrying shuttler in central midfield this year, but next year I plan to use him as a left-sided winger. Mentally very well-rounded and a powerful force in the air, his passing and work rate impressed me most. 7.04 average rating from 49 appearances. Mr Consistent. 7/10.
With Pedro torn from me last year for his £7.25million release clause by Barcelona, I needed someone steady and no frills as a centre-back option. Pasalidis arrived and provided exactly that. Making 32 appearances in all competitions, he was an unassuming but integral squad player. 6/10.
It was never my intention to sign and recycle Zivkovic and Świderski within six months of their arrival. The former is an FM favourite of old from his time at Benfica, and is still a very, very capable player. We just didn’t get on. If Zivkovic wasn’t complaining about training, he was performing badly in it. If he played, he was upset about every shout from the touchline or team talk delivery. If he didn’t play, he kicked up a fuss about that too. Personality – balanced…really?
Zivkovic notched 4 goals and provided 5 assists in his 21 appearances in a Panathinaikos shirt, but it was a mismatch that would never last. I was happy to get in excess of £4million for him in January 2026 after originally signing him for free. 2/10.
Świderski is a solid striker. The Polish forward always impressed against me whether playing for PAOK, or in his loan spell at Asteras. I signed the two-footed 29-year old on a free with a genuine view to rotating him into the team, but Eiane and Chory were performing so well that Antony Alonso barely got a look-in, never mind this newcomer who sat as 4th choice. Off he went to the Czech Republic after just two sub appearances in the green of Panathinaikos. Nice profit though, as he moved on for a flat and up-front £2.5million. 1/10.
CJ Egan-Rileyalso signed on a free from Manchester City as a bit of a utility man. His profile labels him as “the next Nobby Stiles.” I like the Englishman, but I don’t think he’ll ever be a first choice pick for us. 4/10.
Remember Pedro? One half of my first-choice centre back pairing alongside (now) club captain Andrade, Pedro was taken from us last year when Barcelona met his £7.25million release clause. His first 12 months in Catalonia were spent with the B team, before being listed for loan. In January 2026, I jumped to bring him back to Panathinaikos on an 18-month loan deal with no fees, just covering his £8.75k per week wages. I couldn’t be happier. Pedro slotted straight back in alongside Andrade, and with any luck, with only a year left on his Barcelona deal when his lengthy loan deal here expires, we can tempt him back permanently, perhaps at a cut price. 8/10.
Another exit to note, but one without a fairytale return to Athens, was South Korean winger Gwangin Lee. One of our most impressive performers had headed into the final year of his contract, but there had been no signs to suggest that a renewal wasn’t imminent. He had scored 14 goals and created 18 assists the season before, and was a mainstay in that left midfield role. Unfortunately his head was turned when Sporting Lisbon showed an interest, and it was a case of selling him before we had to lose him on a free, as he wouldn’t renew. A fee rising to £5.25million is a decent return for a player who was in the last year of his deal, but a big loss to the starting 11 that I had to adjust to accept.
Lastly, one of my beloved Icelandic gems also moved on, but alas, I replaced him with another!
Júlí Arnþórsson, like many young Icelandic players, has a name that makes me thankful for the copy and paste keyboard shortcuts. He also has bags of potential and looked set to break into the Panathinaikos midfield. That said, when PSG come sniffing around, we all know they tend to eventually get their man. I had signed Arnþórsson for just £150k, and in the end, the French wonderkid smugglers parted with an up-front £7million plus 50% of any future sale fee. I was sad to lose him, but that clause could prove transformative for us if he continues to develop and moves on later in his career.
The young Icelandic midfielder needed replaced. Not necessarily with another young Icelandic midfielder, but that’s exactly what I did. Einar Pétursson was a key defensive screen for me at Tromsø, and I do like to sign players that 1) I have already scouted and directly worked with and 2) give me #narrative vibes when we are reunited.
^ Point 2 was a joke. I hope you enjoyed it.
Although technically lacking in a few areas, his mental attributes and physical profile make Einar a solid addition. I gave my former club £3.5million for him, and spent the leftover profit from the other deal on takeaway food and books I’ll never read.
What else? Is there more?
Yes there is.
We have seriously improved Panathinaikos‘ facilities and their stature in European football. We also eventually broke into the top 10 list of playable teams in this save universe, by club rating / reputation.
If the Red Bull Salzburg or Shakhtar jobs don’t come up (neither are looking likely), I’ll be happy for Panathinaikos to be Robert Vonsen‘s final job in this journey. We started in the second tier in Romania then moved to Norway, but we really have settled here in Greece. A couple more big European nights in Athens and I might be happy to draw this story to a close.
On an entirely separate note, I look after all of my own training when I’m managing in FM; including individual focus, traits, roles and workload. To balance this effectively, you need a good custom squad view to keep track of everything.
A take-home tip that works for me is sticking to Normal Intensity for teenagers or players aged 32 or over, with everyone else on Double Intensity training permanently by default, for the top two conditions bandings.
I put my custom view up on Steam’s workshop and Tweeted out about it, and some people seemed to like it. Here it is, if it’s of any use to you. Download link in the Tweet comments.
So what about next season?
Can we make it three titles in a row? What about the UEFA Champions League group stage? Would we get a lucky group with some chance of making it out of it? Regardless, some new blood is required to refresh the team.
I’ve already covered Einar Pétursson, but the first three are exciting young signings. Especially for free. Valverde will be Bouzoukis’ playmaking understudy, Heric will slot straight in as our first choice right-back. Silva will rotate into that shuttler position in the centre of midfield. Have a click above, have a look. Which of the three is the best capture, do you reckon?
Lastly, a signed another young midfielder. This time a 20-year old Swiss player by the name of LinoCosta, from St.Gallen. I had been tracking him for a while, but the combination of being able to approach him for free and seeing the magnitude of the group of clubs chasing him, screamed out to me that my gut instinct about his potential must be right, and I had to swoop in. I couldn’t believe beating all of these teams to Costa’s signature.
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I was full of hope about our UEFA Champions League group draw? It turns out my optimism was seriously misplaced. Credit to Kristiansund for flying the flag for Norway in the competition though.
Although RB Salzburg and Shakhtar occupy the top two positions in the club rating table of all the playable teams in this save universe, there is another team above us in the rankings who would be a very tempting step up.
It became very hard not to apply for the role when the vacancy appeared. Dinamo Zagreb.
The Croatian side have won their title nine years in a row, and 20 times in the last 21 years. They have players on £70k+ a week, worth tens of millions of pounds. It was so very tempting to push the button to apply.
Then I thought of all the work Robert Vonsen has done in Greece, the massive improvements we have made to the facilities, secure financial position, Champions League glamour group, the new and exciting young midfield arrivals, and Tomas Chory.
I had to stay and see this out for at least one more year. I had to.
Could it be only one more year?
End of season (5ish – complicated due to the Norwegian league calendar) review
Robert Vonsen‘s first full season in charge of Panathinaikos was a success. We won the league, albeit by a single point on the final day, our travelling manager finally nabbed the Continental Pro Licence, and one signing in particular became an instant FM21 favourite. More on him, later.
That’s 4 league titles in as many full seasons in management for our beloved German. Romanian 2nd tier, Romanian 1st tier, Norwegian 1st tier and now Greek 1st tier.
For reasons I could not fathom, there was no trophy lift animation at the final whistle on the last day, so you’ll have to make do with a boring league table screenshot instead, I’m afraid.
Turkish giants Fenerbahce ejected us from the UEFA Europa Conference League knockout stage (4-2 on aggregate) but they went on to win it; and if you believe football pundits, for some reason that always somehow completely justifies being put out by them.
The ‘ECL’group stage was an interesting one, pitting Panathinaikos against Braga, Gent and CSKA-Sofia.
Braga beat us twice and topped the group, but we finished 2nd. Our opener at home against Gent was an outrageous match, as we came back to beat the Belgians 9-1 after initially going a goal down after just 3 and a half minutes.
We were also put out of the domestic cup at the 6th round stage over a ridiculous two legs resulting in an 8-1 aggregate defeat to PAOK.
From one extreme to the other, I guess.
How did you win things etc?
Through hard work and determination. Nah, just kidding. We pivoted between the wide 4-4-2 diamond I waxed lyrical about in the last post, and a more functional flat 4-4-2. A few of the players were outrageous. Let’s talk about a few of them now.
Playmaker Giannis Bouzoukis casually made more than double the number of key passes of any other player in the Greek top division. That’s substantially more than Olympiakos‘ £17m-rated “second coming of Christ” Esteban Sánchez (below), who after the league season ended was immediately linked with moves to Barcelona and Milan. Bouzoukis played as an Advanced Playmaker when deployed in the 10 role, also tasked with holding up the ball. In the flat system, he was a Deep-Lying Playmaker, but unusually (and beautifully) much more keen to play precise through-passes to create goal-scoring opportunities than he was to recycle possession and look for diagonals out to the wingers.
When I signed Tomas Chory from Viktoria Plzeň I thought I knew what I was getting. A big target man who had a decent strike in him. When FM Rensie told me how vilified he was in the Czech league for his flying elbows and vicious attitude that frankly makes Diego Costa seem like a more affable Stephen Fry, it made me like him even more.
He only cost us £55k, but what happened next surprised even me. <- Nice Buzzfeed headline, that.
It’s true. Tomas Chory is the single most lethal finisher in European football. For £55k.
37 goals in 36 league games. 47 goals in 52 appearances overall. I love him. I hope he never leaves. I played him as an Advanced Forward with Antony Alonso alongside him, mainly as a Pressing Forward on Attack. Alonso didn’t do too badly either, bagging 34 goals in 49 games overall, but Chory’s record is obscene this season.
Quite simply, he got into good positions with an alarming regularity (high xG), took an incredible number of attempts at goal (350 in 52 games) and converted those good quality chances at a solid rate.
When you have a playmaker putting the ball into dangerous areas twice as often as anyone else in the league and a pair of strikers in hot scoring form (one even more than the other), finishing near the top is a certainty.
That being said, Olympiakos only lost out on being champions by a single point, losing one game more that we drew. Our +59 goal difference and 27 wins from 36 games on paper sound like ‘waltzing to victory’ form, but Olympiakos also won 27 times, and actually ended on +62 goals.
Lady luck was shini….you get the idea.
What about the other signings?
Ekanit Panya ended up a brilliant free signing. 14 goals and 11 assists from the right side of midfield, the Thai international was a constant danger on the flank, and often wormed his way to the byline inside the penalty area, regularly cutting the ball back for someone (usually Giannis Bouzoukis) to lay on the assist for the big strikers. A regular provider of ‘secondary assists.’ if you will. A solid 8/10 signing.
Andrade, the Brazilian teenage mountain, was a colossus at the back. 6 foot 5 tall with a tackling attribute of 18 meant that he governed the Panathinaikos box with the ease of a much more experienced stopper. Clichés aside, he was excellent. His job was made harder when his settled centre back partner Pedro had his £7.25million release clause triggered by Barcelona and exited in the January 2025 window (bastards). From January until the title was finally lifted in mid May, Andrade remained consistent (he too is an 8/10 signing), whether alongside veteran Czech defender Vaclav Jemelka (6/10. Solid but unspectacular, bit of a moaner too), ex-Tromsø centre back Markus Nakkim (5/10) or even the emergency 5-month free signing of former FM ‘wonderkid,’ Kyriakos Papadopoulos (1/10. 2 appearances, 1 red card, retiring in the summer).
Other signings included the functional winger Mathias Kristensen who made 33 sub appearances, but 0 starts, Probably 3/10 for performances but 6/10 for being utilitarian. Full back Andreas Vindheim, our solid first choice right back who slotted straight in but didn’t stand out for any notable good or bad reasons, 6/10.
Lastly, first choice goalkeeper Jacob Karlstrøm who I had to bring in from Tromsø, managed 15 clean sheets and an average rating of 7.03. Over 7, for a goalkeeper. Wild horses. An 8/10 signing.
So we won the league (just), had a decent Europa Conference League campaign and were dumped out of the cup when we should have at least got to the final like we did last year. We created a partnership between one of the most creative playmakers I’ve used this year (Bouzoukis) and a deadly striker (Chory). We achieved the final coaching badge and overall had a great campaign.
Before I forget, I made some more visual analysis about the finished campaign, to accompany all this reading. Here it is for your eyes to consume, now.
We were also approached for takeover, typically with the included temporary transfer embargo which threatened to derail our January 2025 plans. Luckily our own chairman couldn’t figure out how to buy the club himself (or another complicated boardroom coup situation) and things went back to normal.
I feel that a successful takeover is inevitable at some stage though. I can feel it.
The goal next year is ideally to fight our way through the painful UEFA Champions League qualification process, despite UEFA’s news item telling me that the Greek league winners will automatically qualify for the group stage going forward.
Starting next year, of course.
I’d of course love to win the league again next season, not just for guaranteed Champions League revenue.
Despite the success in Greece so far, one constant criticism of Robert Vonsen‘s tenure in the club vision has been a refusal to play possession football, opting for direct and aggressive approaches instead. Next season, I am planning to pivot to a more Cruyffian short-passing system, for the enjoyable challenge if nothing else. I’ll definitely stick with 4-4-2 to begin with (whether diamond or flat) and ‘get stuck in’ will still be selected as a strategic tenet , because although I may tactically flex; I like brave, aggressive teams with two strikers, and for Panathinaikos, I doubt that will change.
The manager has had quite a journey, from Romania to Greece via Norway. The end goal is still ideally the Red Bull Salzburg or Shakhtar job, but unfortunately their respective original managers are still in charge. Both clubs have basically been destroying all those around them domestically for 5 years and counting.
That said, with Robert Vonsen now fully qualified, the possibility of a UEFA Champions League group stage and a team hopefully strong enough to dominate domestically within the next few seasons, we may be nearing our ceiling.
Yes, there is.
Moving into the 25/26 season, a couple of players wanted out and there were targets out there I really wanted in. Some I got, some I didn’t. As we head towards kicking a competitive ball in anger (I think I hate that expression), the summer business is done and dusted and the squad is settled.
I will cover the new signings and the new-look Panathinaikos on the next post, which will be probably be written up in 2026 at the end of the forthcoming campaign.
In the meantime, here’s a graphic I put together, presenting Vonsen’s current group of players. It was fun to make.
End of season (4ish – complicated due to the Norwegian league calendar) review
As the first member of airline staff you encounter whenever you disembark a plane at Athens International Airport is contractually obliged to say to you, “Welcome to Greece.”
I know what you are thinking. What happened to all the “Tromsø have a title to defend!” patter from the last post? I thought our ever-improving German manager Robert Vonsen was just settling in after winning the league in Norway in his first full season in charge?
This is was true. There weren’t any decent jobs available in the leagues with a higher reputation than Norway’s top division in the save (Croatia, Greece, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ukraine or Austria), so I was all set for another year in the Eliteserien. Bryan Fiabema and Markus Eiane on fire up top. Sigurd Grønli as the creative spark at 10, and the couple of Icelandic undrabörn just breaking through. Have a look at the series so far to chart our journey from Romania to Norway.
By the way, apparently ‘undrabörn‘ is Icelandic for ‘child prodigies,’ i.e. ‘wonderkids.’ If it isn’t, blame Google Translate.
That was until a massive club from one of those nations suddenly sacked their manager with 15 games of their domestic season remaining. A club who were sat in 7th in the Greek Super League Interwetten, when they’ve actually won the thing 20 times and finished 3rd and 4th each year since the save begun, prior to this one.
It’s Panathinaikos, and they are going through a rough patch.
I did have to think about it. What if we’d managed to get Tromsø into the UEFA Champions League group stage? We could potentially have gone on to be a real force in Norwegian football.
I made this handy graphic to compare the clubs side-by-side. It took tens of seconds to make, but was very worthwhile in helping me decide.
At Tromsø I had signed one new player before the out-of-the-blue interview invitation popped into our inbox. Solid midfielder Vajebah Sakor arrived on a free transfer, and a few fringe players from Tromsø2 left at the end of their contracts.
When one demented Tromsø fan claimed that the entire support were upset at manager Robert Vonsen for releasing someone who “started regularly,” when in fact he only started for the reserve team and never the first, my decision was sealed.
Everyone knows Panathinaikos. The Greek giants were 1971’s UEFA Champions League runners up and they are 20-time winners of Greece’s top division.
The team I inherited though, needed a bit of a fresh start.
The chances of a decent campaign were snake’s belly low, but we had 5 games to at least salvage a ‘Championship Group’ finish in the top 6 before the split. That was an absolute must.
After the 5 games, I am pleased to say that we had snuck into 6th, and I had the remaining 10 games to give me a strong understanding of how much work needed done in the summer ahead of our first full Greek campaign.
I surpassed my own original expectations as we won 7, drew 5 and lost just 3 of the remaining 15 games, finishing 3rd in the table.
We also got to the domestic cup final, where we were unfortunately battered by the all-conquering Olympiakos. 1-0 suggests a tight game, but we never really looked like scoring.
A few existing players did catch my eye as ones to build around, and there were a few others to definitely keep in the squad, surviving the much-needed squad cull and refresh.
First to be safe was Uruguayan striker Antony Alonso, who loves a fight with opposition defenders along with a penchant for a neat finish.
Next its Portuguese left-back Rafael Rodrigues who also looked a must-keep.
Playmaker and Panathinaikos player since the age of 15, Giannis Bouzoukis has to be the key creative force, so he must stay.
Last but not least, former manager Dimitris Spanos had kindly left me a wonderful parting gift. A gift in the shape of an already signed pre-contract agreement for a 6 foot 5 Brazilian centre-back, with astonishing attributes for a player who is/was due to arrive on a free in the summer, just days after turning 18 years old.
So who left in the summer?
That’s a great question. Thank you for asking it.
Some players had to leave. BATE Borisov gladly paid the £1.5million I asked for to sign Adrián Colombino, a good but not great Uruguayan midfielder. He would have done a job for me, no problem, but with non-EU slots at a premium (a maximum of 5 in the match-day squad), I really need any non-EU players to be very much worthy of taking the spot.
Curiously, BATE paid the £1.5million in full, only to loan the 30-year old back to the Greek league immediately, to our rivals Aris. Strange behaviour. He’ll be pushing 32 before he gets his first appearance in a BATE shirt, if he ever does.
Ex-Manchester United ‘wonderkid’ Kiko Macheda, now 33, left for Crotone in his native Italy for £725k, and a few other fringe players left either for free or for fees < £100k.
Now for the sexy bit
Not Scarlett Johansson. I mean the new players we signed ahead of the 24/25 campaign. Obviously.
Alongside the aforementioned Brazilian behemoth Andrade, three other players arrived that were of my doing; already earmarked to slot straight into the starting eleven. Click the image to actually see them with your eyes.
Tomas Chory is 6 foot 6. He isn’t slow, can finish and provides more than you’d expect from a typical ‘target man.’ Chory will partner Alonso in a two-man attack.
I’ve been tracking Ekanit Panya since our days in Romania. I continued following him while in Norway, and finally managed to bring him in now we’ve arrived in Greece. A pint-sized attacking midfielder, Panya will play mainly on the right in my system, but I expect him to regularly drift inside as more of a playmaker than an out-and-out winger.
Panathinaikos already had the very serviceable all-round keeper Sokratis Dioudis on the books between the sticks; but having had previous #GIFsave hero Jacob Karlstrøm at Tromsø, I really had to bring him to Greece with me, given the opportunity. A £500k investment later, and the towering stopper arrived in Athens.
He has already proved to be worth the outlay, as the below #GIFsave suggests.
Three more players arrived to fill the gaps in the squad. One player you may be familiar with (even though his face is now different, courtesy of FM Rensie‘s fantastic suggestion of pivoting to a different newgen facepack solution). Again, click below for a closeup.
Vaclav Jemelka may have an undesirable sub-10 Work Rate, but the Czech centre back is physically well-rounded, brave and determined, as well as a good tackler with strong positional sense and is a brilliant man marker. A good pickup for free as back up to the two giant first-choice CBs, Andrade and Pedro.
Mathias Kristensen, 27, had played his entire career at Esbjerg in Norway. I signed him on a free transfer mainly for his positional versatility. A determined and unselfish player with decent technique, dribbling and corner delivery, he could prove to be the ultimate utility man from the bench this year.
Omar Zeregaber you may remember as being a 17-year old prospect I signed for Tromsø last year from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Vålerenga. I had high hopes for him, but didn’t push him too hard and let him develop over last season at his own pace. Since I left for Greece, my replacement (more on this in a minute) clearly didn’t think he was ready either, so dropped him to Tromsø 2, the reserve/development team. I had a sniff around him as I still fancy his potential as a future elite poacher, but couldn’t believe when they let him follow me to Greece for just £130k.
The pre-season friendlies went well, and sneaking into 3rd place allowed us a chance at UEFA Europa Conference League qualification. It’s UEFA’s third most prestigious continental competition, we had to have a proper go at it!
Getting past Zorya and Dundee United is perhaps to be expected, but drawing Everton was a sore one to be pitted against for the final qualifier.
Luckily our two away goals in the draw on Merseyside set us up for a more comfortable return leg at home than I was expecting. Although the beautiful Karlstrøm save from the gif earlier in the blog prevented what would have been a first-leg defeat.
Group stage draw time…
The above would be a relatively challenging group for the Europa League, never mind the next continental competition down from it. Braga and Gent will be no walks in the park, especially away from home. Other clichés are available.
We will shortly be kicking off the 24/25 league campaign. The system that has been working for me with the new-look line up is a 4-4-2 diamond. Ultra direct but relatively low frills, it has everything I like in a formation.
Two strikers, a creative number 10, tricky wingers, a ‘destroyer’ at 5 (or ‘8’ in this case) and full-backs who’s primary responsibility is to defend. The only thing I plan to initially switch between is the passing length and tempo, depending on the opposition.
Oh, I almost forgot. We managed to bag the Continental A Licence (finally), and started work on the Pro. Soon, the sky will be the limit for Robert Vonsen. Well, within the confines of the leagues I have selected as playable in this save universe, which doesn’t include any of the biggest European ones. Red Bull Salzburg or Shakhtar Donetsk is still the dream end goal here.
I also made reference earlier to my replacement at Tromsø, saying I’d tell you more “in a minute,” but then lied to you as I wrote loads of other stuff first. If that upsets you, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. On second thoughts, don’t do that, the email address is made up, and I don’t care.
Anyway, taking my old job was none other than the Championship Manager legend himself, Tommy Svindal Larsen.
In other news, our other former employers U Craiova 1948 have since collapsed. Instead of “doing a Tromsø” and hiring a Champ Manager legend to take the hotseat and carry on the momentum (maybe Marc Emmers or Kennedy Bakircioglü?), they hired some other guy and went from Romanian champions to relegated within 12 or so months.
Although I only managed Panathinaikos for the final 15 league games of last season (plus those last couple of domestic cup matches), here is the end of season review as usual anyway.
It didn’t give me huge insights into “my” Panathinaikos side, but it did give me some food for thought, going forward.
End of season (3.5ish – complicated due to the Norwegian league calendar) review
Remember Estelle? The London singer with the velvety voice who collaborated with Kanye West on the 2008 “banger” American Boy?
Me too. Sort of.
A quick Google (other search engines are available) tells me she later recorded some reggae and then starred in a Netflix film. Good for her. I didn’t want her to vanish like fellow one-hit wonder Gotye, who is now just somebody that I used to know (woosh).
Anyway, the only reason Estelle is on my mind is because I wanted the first headline of this blog post to contain relevant lyrics (without usingQueen – We are the Champions), referencing the fact that for the first time in their 103-year history, Tromsø are the champions of Norway!
Tenuous, I know. Sorry.
After Robert Vonsen‘s first 7 matches in charge of Tromsø, which were the final 7 matches of last season, we barely escaped relegation, remember?
It was supposed to a bit of fun. A nice easing in to Norwegian football after conquering Romania.
After the season ended, I had signed 7 new players before we kicked another competitive ball, and during the 2023 campaign we added a further 3 you haven’t seen yet.
Einar is the second Icelandic newgen gem (newgem? nah?*) I’ve discovered and signed since moving to Norway, after the 16-year-old diamond that is Óliver Jónsson. ‘OJ’ has actually had his attributes drop a little since signing. I think I may have relied on him too heavily (28 appearances and 4 goals) and pushed him too hard, given that he isn’t yet old enough to drive. Sometimes he does do stuff like the below though. It was voted Tromsø‘s #gifgoal of the season…
The screenshot of the three new players above the golazo gif will be useful if you want to look at their lovely faces and attribute profiles while I wax lyrical about them below…
Einar Pétursson is the perfect screen in front of our backline. He is physically and mentally very well-rounded for a player who is still a teenager. His defensive technical attributes aren’t bad either, and will grow in time. His average rating of 7.02 from 13 appearances shows that I bought him for his current qualities alongside his undoubted potential.
Omar Zeregaber is a typical poacher. At 17-years old I am excited to see how he develops. Already a great finisher, hard worker with good movement and composure, he has the makings of a prolific goal-scorer. After seeing the negative impacts of throwing a player so young into week in-week out professional football in OJ, I have used Omar a little more sparingly so far. A mentoring group with him in it is actually working well. Something I haven’t been able to say at all before now, during FM21.
Bryan Fiabema, now 20, is a Tromsø product, through and through. Born and raised in the area, Fiabema joined Chelsea (in real life) in 2020, and managed 3 league goals in 7 games across 3 years for the London giants (in-game). It was a surprise when Thomas Tuchel let his contract run down, and an even bigger surprise when I managed to convince the tricky forward to come home to Norway on a free transfer, especially when Milan were sniffing around him towards the end of his deal. He repaid my persistent scouting and press comments by smashing in 15 goals in 17 games, along with 6 assists and 7 man of the match awards.
We pivoted from the flat and extremely direct 4-4-2 I had planned to use this year to a narrow diamond with a number 10 behind a strike pairing (more on this in a minute), so at first I was torn between using Fiabema as a fantasista in the hole, or as a proper striker, perhaps in a roaming Trequartista role. I opted for the latter as despite his various qualities, his lack of passing ability and vision nudged me away from playmaker and towards proper attacker.
The new system
So precisely as I said above, we pivoted to a 4-4-2 diamond. This was for a couple of reasons. The main ones were Einar Pétursson and Sigurd Grønli. Sure I could pair them as central midfielders, but to do so would rob both of them of their key abilities, asking them to do midfield donkey work they aren’t best equipped to do. Pétursson is an effective defensive screen, Grønli is a diminutive playmaker. Simple.
They therefore had to play as a 5 and a 10 (if you consider your numbers in the proper, Argentina-influenced way. Even if I’ve ruined that by giving OJ the 5 shirt and moving him up to CM after Einar joined.)
As I hinted, Bryan Fiabema suits the Trequartista role. It’s not one I tend to use often, especially not in a striking berth. Fiabema’s physical prowess plus his decent dribbling and penchant for the unpredictable (flair 17) suits the role. Sure his off the ball movement (11) and vision (9) should ideally be higher, but he’s only 20, give the guy a f*cking break.
15 goals in 17 games shows my faith was well-placed. Much like most of his finishes (woosh again).
His strike partner Markus Eiane regularly switched between Target Man on Support and the Poacher role this year. Ideally I want him on the end of chances (he is our best finisher on paper and scored 25 times). With a roaming Treq beside him, I need someone to spearhead the attack, hence Poacher.
That being said, sometimes in games where I was evidently losing the battle in midfield, switching him to the Target Man role 1) saw him drop a little deeper to support the midfield, and 2) gave me the option to look for the long ball due to his aerial strength, bypassing the congested midfield completely.
In other news, midfield man Eirik Ulland Andersen, who I had earlier signed on a free from Molde won the Norwegian Players’ Premier Division Player of the Year. 8 goals scored and 13 assists from midfield in 25 appearances, averaging 7.59 in match ratings. Rejoice.
Goalkeeper Jacob Karlstrøm (aerial reach and jumping both 20) also pulled out this God-tier double save to prevent disaster. He did stuff like this regularly.
I (Robert Vonsen) also won manager of the year.
We won our first 16 games in a row, and it wasn’t until matchday 22 that we lost a league match, a drab 1-0 defeat against Lillestrøm. It was sandwiched among a run of painful draws that I thought would never end. I started to worry that Cyberpunk 2077 was going to be bug-free before we won again.
The other two defeats (including a 5-1 mauling from Ed’s former employers Bodø/Glimt) were immediately after we mathematically sealed the title. Players still drunk, I imagine.
Although I chopped and changed the tactic between the route one flat 4-4-2 and the narrow short-passing diamond, we ultimately won the league due to the volume of attacks we attempted, and the solid conversion rate of our forwards.
Bodø/Glimt were also responsible for dumping us out of the Norwegian Cup at the Quarter Final stage, but I can live with that. Bloody Patrick Berg. I’d buy him if I could afford to. Just to deprive Bodø from playing the talented bastard against me.
Second last but not least, here is an Excel table showing that attackers did attacking things, and defenders did defending. All outfield players did a combination of both. I hope you really like it.
Last but possibly least, here is a visualisation of what those numbers mean in dot form. I hope you really like this one too.
As we know, the goal here is onwards and upwards. That being said, Robert Vonsen finally nabbed the Continental B Licence this year, and started working on the Continental A. It will be complete in July 2024, then it’s just the Pro to go.
Manager reputation has risen to 55% / ‘Fairly Good,’ and the statistics make for a nice read after a couple of titles in Romania and one in Norway.
One thing is for sure, the German is still devilishly handsome.
Outside of fringe striker Shuaibu Ibrahim leaving for Liberec on a free, there is no business lined up for the off-season, and no key Tromsø players out of contract.
That said, every manager likes to freshen up his squad between campaigns, and I am no different. Since the season in Norway follows the calendar year, expiring stars from other European leagues won’t be available until the summer, but I may be able to nab some Norwegian bodies from the teams around me.
Board expectations are to finish in the top half next season. Even if our title win was a stroke of good luck, I have faith we’ll have enough in the tank to do at least that, without extensive strengthening.
If we can get to the UEFA Champions League group stage it would be mind-blowing, but I am not getting my hopes up. The qualification draw is still be made, but getting through it will be a steep mountain to climb.
As I mentioned right at the start of this journey, there are only certain leagues loaded. The most prestigious of which is the top tier in either Ukraine or Austria. Shakhtar Donetsk would be a lovely end goal to be in charge of, but Red Bull Salzburg is the job I am eyeing from afar.
Jesse Marsch has been in charge since 2019 and they’ve just won their 10th Austrian title in a row, but there’s always a chance.
Above Norway in the reputation table are also the top tiers in Croatia, Greece, Czech Republic and Denmark, so there is definite room for more twist and turns before I call it a day for this “journeyman” (groan).
In the meantime, Tromsø have a title to defend!
For no reason other than to reward the beautiful people who like to interact on my Slack channel, here is a tiny no-context Anne Hathaway gif, before the usual season review gallery.
First things first, let’s take a moment to remember what I said in the last blog post as I arrived in Norway.
“With only 7 league games remaining, it’s a bit of a free hit as long as we don’t fall into the relegation spots. I like that it gives me some time to experiment with player selection, tactical ideas and generally get used to the place, before the fresh start of the 2023 campaign.”
– Some FM-playing melt who was evidently too confident. Me.
Talk about tempting fate.
Although I could already sense from my initial look that the team was a little imbalanced, overall Tromsø looked in decent shape, sitting 12th of the 16 teams in the Eliteserian and well stocked in terms of playing staff. After 2.5 seasons in Romania, I was ready for the challenge of working at this level.
What I wasn’t ready for was failing to win a single game in those remaining 7 fixtures, escaping relegation by a single point.
The final whistle on the final day in that away match at Vålerenga couldn’t come quickly enough. I was pleased to wave the 2022 campaign goodbye. At least to the small portion of it that I ruined.
October 2022 – April 2023
Time for a complete rethink.
Out went 11 players for a combined income of £875,000. In came 7 players for £1.2million. Net spend = £325,000.
I’ve always been a big fan of ‘get stuck in’ and I do love a 4-4-2. I seem to usually strategise to one extreme or the other. If it’s short passing; it’s tiny triangles of keep-ball in a narrow system without wingers, a team full of diminutive technical players. If it’s FM Tahiti-inspired blood and guts violence – it’s route one, full-backs who solely defend and a real focus on aerial prowess, aggression and work rate. Among other brutal methods of opposition elimination of course.
While adopting either school of thought, I always target the most creative and prolific players in the opposition team by tracking key pass numbers, opposition striker xG and pass receipt locations, then adjusting instructions accordingly before and during matches. For Tromsø I have decided to ramp up the whole concept to the extreme.
This is the shape and system.
Our goalkeeper Jacob Karlstrøm is 6 foot 7 with aerial reach 20. The average height of our back four is just shy of 6 foot 2. I want monsters in the air. I know height doesn’t matter literally in an ME sense, but is usually indicative of high jumping reach, which is the case here. The three defenders above with a ‘defend’ duty also have an average bravery attribute of 16.67. Perfect.
All three of those are new signings. The impressively named Simen Wangberg previously spent nearly 7 years at Tromsø before moving to Rosenborg‘s bench to waste 2 years of his career before I brought him back to captain the club for just £40k.
I know it was only 7 games, but we seemed to lack a physical presence at the back. I don’t mind seeing my defensive players being occasionally out-paced or seeing a full-back beaten by a touch of magical mystery feet, but I cannot stand the type of player who would probably have a weak handshake and close his eyes a minute and a half before heading the ball.
Moving into the midfield…
Sigurd Grønli is the key pivot in the centre of the park. He is quite the contrast of the defenders behind him. Short but agile, technical and mentally very well rounded, Grønli’s passing from deep positions as well as work ethic and level headedness will be central (literally and figuratively) to our attacking play. Grønli actually starts at Tromsø in FM21 (at least in the pre winter update db), but the previous manager had let him go to Finland for free in 2021 before I brought him home for £200,000. FM Samo got a real tune out of him back in FM19. Hopefully I can do the same here.
Prosper Mendy is a classic winger (despite being in fact a natural left-back) who despite his 6 foot 1 frame, his key strengths are his pace, dribbling and crossing. Ideal. On the other flank, new signing Eirik Ulland Andersen is the polar opposite. Not quick and can’t dribble, but has great vision, long shots, crossing and should be deadly from corners and free kicks. Think James Ward-Prowse when he plays on the right flank for Southampton, but Norwegian; and on £1800 a week instead of per hour.
The other midfielder, Icelandic newgen Óliver “OJ” Jónsson, is something special. The world of Twitter seemed to agree.
Jónsson is going to be an absolute monster, if at SIXTEEN YEARS OLD he isn’t already.
His attribute mix for a central midfielder provides a fantastic starting point. His main job defensively will be to close down opposition threats, winning the ball back before it reaches our back four (tackling 18, bravery 18, aggression 15). Offensively he will be required to move into the channels between opposition defenders, receiving the ball in tight areas and laying it off to more creative players (first touch 15, composure 13, balance 13). Throw in his well above average physical profile, strong free kick ability and strong crossing if and when he drifts out wide and we have the definition of a ‘wonderkid’ on our hands. I am already training him to ‘dive into tackles’ and to focus a little more closely on his passing, vision and technique. His personality will grow and change in time.
At the top of the pitch, one side of our strike force consists of Fitim Azemi who was one of the few players from the dreadful 7 game run who actually passed with flying colours. He bagged 4 goals and looked a constant menace.
The other is a new signing. 21-year-old, 6 foot 5 Markus Eiane. Eiane is another player I am excited about. Lacking in technical proficiency in a couple of ways (dribbling, first touch, technique) but a physical force in the air coupled with wonderful mental strengths for an attacker (anticipation, composure, flair, off the ball) while still being considered a good finisher from short range as well as long, his potential could be as high as his jumping reach (groan).
With the “off season” lasting four years between campaigns in Norway, we had to play 200 friendlies to pass the time.
They went well.
Some of the direct passing was a joy to behold. The way Fitim Azemi took this down on the turn to finish made me happier than it should have. Welcome back to my WordPress formatting favourite, big white gaps above and below embedded video clips, for no reason.
It’s safe to say I do not expect us to be as tragic as we were in those 7 games when I first took over. 7 of the starting 11 are new players. New players that really do fit the requirements for what I would like Robert Vonsen‘s Tromsø to do.
Here’s an analysis of defending and attacking attribute strengths across the team. More complex analysis may come in time, depending if there are problems that plotting out the numbers will help fix. Standout has to be 16-year old OJ, as incredibly the nearest thing we have to an all-rounder both offensively and defensively. I am happy that three of my first choice back four rate well in a defensive sense, while new playmaker Grønli is clearly our best all out attacker. The relationship between those central midfielders is key, and according to their attributes, they should complement each other well.
Speaking of our German managerial alter-ego, we have finally managed to get some coaching qualifications on the go.
With the three National licences in the bag. Continental C was the next big one to grab. Now that we have that too, it’s Continental B time. Fingers crossed that 6 months down the line we have the funds to study for the A. Then it’s just the Pro licence and then the sky is the limit etc.
Oh and this happened.
We’ve got the badges (sort of), we’ve signed the right players (on paper), embedded a new tactic and prepared well. It’s Tromsø in 2023. We are 100-1 for the title.
The 21/22 campaign was a memorable year. The second season of our German manager Robert Vonsen‘s career was quite the Romanian ride.
If you like M. Night Shyamalan movies; 1) I am sorry to hear that, 2) you are in for a treat as there is a twist at the end. Sort of.
After promotion to the Casa Liga 1 in season one, Romania’s top domestic division provided a tougher challenge, but somehow not much tougher.
Interestingly in Romania after the 30 match first phase, you only take 50% of your first phase points into the second. So our 10 point lead at the top of the table at the time immediately halved to 5! Despite our best attempts at self-sabotage by only winning 2 of the final 10 games of the season (otherwise known as the Championship Group phase), we won the league by 2 points while playing our now signature counter-attacking 4-4-2.
We also won the Romanian Supercup by beating Astra Giurgiu 2-1. We had a man sent off on 16 minutes, but it served only to galvanise our remaining 10 players (and other applicable clichés) as we managed to score twice despite only managing 39% possession. We saw out the tie and lifted the cup. I’ll take it. Three trophies in the first two years.
This year we exited the Romanian domestic cup at the 4th round (last year we reached the 5th), but wild league overperformance in our first ever campaign in the top tier (the club were only established in 2017, remember?) ensured that the directors of the board burst into the manager’s office throwing bottles of Lidl Cava around instead of being disappointed at our premature cup exit.
How did you do it?
Interestingly, it’s not particularly straightforward to explain why or how it went so well.
Statistically speaking, we weren’t particularly good at anything.
Here’s a Twitter thread I created that was devoted solely to exploring that exact line of thinking. Click on it so what I’m on about makes sense, and give my life true purpose.
If you clicked the above and read the series of related Tweets, enjoying all of the lovely tables filled with numbers, thank you for your committed support to the blog. I won’t forget you. (I will).
If you couldn’t be arsed clicking and want a TL:DR instead, that is entirely fair. The summary is as follows:
Statistically we are great at intercepting the ball and winning back possession, but not blocking shots. We don’t win headers, control the ball or dictate the tempo of games. We also lose possession a lot. Though we love to kick people and charge around angrily, collecting yellow cards like Panini stickers.
That said, we do create a comparatively high number of chances and generally convert a higher percentage of them than our rivals.
VERDICT – Individual players are winning possession and covering more ground than the average opposition player. The quality of the goal opportunities we create is high, as is our conversion rate. We may lose the ball often, but we are conceding low quality chances. Never stop running and be clinical is my advice! This seems to work, even if you are managing a team who are otherwise garbage at playing football.
Tell me more
Going into this season as a promoted side, we were minnows in every way that it is usually implied when people involved in football compare a club to various species of tiny fish. Finances, reputation, player quality, manager stature – we were dwarfed by not only our giant rivals/cousins (and previous year’s league champions) CS Craiova, but by every other side in the division, except fellow promoted side CS Mioveni.
We signed up Villarreal as an affiliate, which delivered no value beyond the £45k they gave us for signing the agreement.
Our U Craiova 1948 side scored some lovely goals. I saved a few here for you to see for yourself, since everything I do is centred around thinking about your wants and needs.
Don’t ask me why there are large white gaps above and below the embedded videos. I’m a (pretend) football manager mate, not a WordPress expert.
Here’s another great goal inexplicably bookended by vast expanses of blank screen space.
Money makes the world go round
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that the first heading in this post made reference to a ‘failed escape plan.’ You may have even noticed in the salary table for Casa Liga 1 a bit further up that the finances of our club said ‘Insecure.’
This is an understatement. Until I eventually managed to beg some truly average football players (and a couple of decent ones) to renew their contracts for another year for the monetary equivalent of a sarcastic slap in the face, we were in a terrible position heading into season 3. U Craiova1948 would genuinely have had 12 senior players, zero bodies in the Reserve team and only a handful of useless teenagers from the latest shambolic youth intake on our books, had it not been for my persistent attempts for renewals.
No money means there are no funds to bring in talent. Simple. It also means there are no funds to invest in our facilities, youth, training or any other essential part of a football club’s infrastructure.
When the board said they had taken out a £1.7million loan to help build the new 4,500 seater stadium, I threw my laptop out of the window and took up smoking again.
On the topic of our youth facilities, the latest intake was no better than the last one. Only a couple of players were able to tie their boot laces and make it onto the field in time for the exciting spectacle that is the under 19s playing against the youth candidates. You’ll see what I mean below.
The final challenge of managing a team who have to print their matchday tickets on old Tesco receipts due to budget cuts, is that they very very rarely budge on allowing you funding for coaching badges. They either say that you are one of the only human beings on the coaching staff and are therefore required to attend training every day, the board worry that you will leave for another job if you have any theoretically provable competence as a manager, or they simply print off a bank statement, draw a sad face on it with crayon and slide it under your office door to show you how little money there is.
Winning the league and Supercup double finally allowed me to study for one of the very basic coaching badges, but it took until almost 30 months of in-game time for the board to stretch to the £600 required.
I’m not getting any younger
The plan was always to move on. To bigger clubs and brighter things. Spending more than two years at a small Romanian club wasn’t ever on the agenda but neither was winning three trophies, so I’ll happily accept it. It has been a fun experience.
I applied to a number of clubs. Panathinaikos in Greece looked the most likely (I even got an interview!) but in the end they said no. There were so many others, most of which I cannot remember. From Colombia to Belarus, the answer was always no.
Our manager’s stock is high due to the evidenced ability to operate on a shoestring budget while delivering wins, but Vonsen’s lack of coaching badges is proving a real obstacle to progress.
I filtered out unplayable leagues on these competition screens and had a look. The Romanian top tier is the subjectively 32nd “biggest” in European football. A move to Poland or Bulgaria’s top tier would be nice. We couldn’t stretch to Norway or Croatia without further badges, could we?
Season 3 in charge of U Craiova 1948 kicks off with only one new signing able to come in. Nomadic free agent Valentin Alexandru arrives with decent pedigree for our level. With Cristian Bud retiring and the iconic Williams Peralta (41 goals in 79 appearances) upsettingly finally starting to rapidly decline, a new striker was definitely required.
Overperforming in the first two seasons led to a couple of positives. The club has multiplied in value (by more than 100x!), even if their facilities are still found to be less than desirable.
The numbers also led to the manager having a nice looking CV, lacking only in qualifications and coaching attributes. Those two go hand-in-hand, and will come in time.
For the time being, we soldier on in the role. U Craiova 1948 made their debut in the UEFA Champions League on the 6th of June 2022 away to the champions of Belarus, BATE Borisov. The thrilling encounter ended 1-1, and we went on to sneak the home leg 2-1 to progress. A huge result.
The next round saw us flatten KF Shkëndija of Macedonia 7-1 on aggregate, before sadly exiting the Champions League 3-0 on aggregate against Croatian giants Dinamo Zagreb in the Third Qualifying Round.
Through some bizarre continental competition structuring, we dropped into the UEFA Europa League qualifiers, but unfortunately fell to FK Partizan 3-2 over the 180 minutes. The European dream was over.
Or was it?
It seems like the routes into European competition are more complicated and lenient than ever before. As a result of falling out of both of UEFA’s prestigious continental cups, U Craiova 1948 drop into the UEFA Europa Conference League group stage. A competition I’ve previously enjoyed in FM20 (winning it with Lille).
With six wins from the opening eight Casa Liga 1 games and this Europa Conference League group to look forward to, I guess it’s time to buckle up and settle in for another year in Romania.
But wait, the Tromsø job in Norway has just come up…
Tromsø are12th of the 16 teams in Norway’s top tier with seven league games remaining, so their top flight status should be safe. The Norwegian top division is the 23rd most reputable in Europe (vs 32nd for the Romanian), the facilities are night and day in comparison to U Craiova48 and they actually have some money!
I pasted together the below to compare the teams side-by-side before making any big decisions.
I then made the decision pretty quickly.
A new chapter begins!
I managed Lillestrøm of Norway in FM20 and had a great old time. Hopefully I can do so again.
In FM21 writing terms, there have been a few others who have managed in Norway already that I need to give a shout out to. If I can replicate half the success of Ed’sBodø/Glimt side or the incredible development of FMSamo’sVålerenga, I’ll be pleased. Fingers crossed!
In the next post I’ll dive into Tromsø a bit more as a club, figure out the lay of the land, and see what work needs to be prioritised. With only 7 league games remaining, it’s a bit of a free hit as long as we don’t fall into the relegation spots. I like that it gives me some time to experiment with player selection, tactical ideas and generally get used to the place, before the fresh start of the 2023 campaign.
Very (very) early impression is that the side is a little imbalanced. Some players who look decent at first glance have a few glaring attribute gaps for the roles it seems the previous manager was playing them in.
Let’s see out the season, take stock, and soldier on. Goodbye to Romania, hello to Norway!
Cut to the chase, Robert Vonsen‘s U Craiova 1948 were promoted as champions of Liga 2 in Romania at the end of our first season.
Unbeaten in the first phase, losing just once in the second. Finished the overall campaign as winners by 14 points. Joy.
We were tossed out of the Romanian Cup 4-0 by domestic rivals CS Mioveni in the 5th round, but the board weren’t bothered since we bagged promotion.
How did you do it?
Although we stuck to the aggressive and relatively direct 442 I had envisioned for the team, I was completely wrong about the players I would select, mainly because of the painful registration rules.
I famously said in blog post one alongside the above screenshot, “There are also some non-EU and homegrown player requirements, which I am sure I will get used to in time.” It turns out that this was an ambitious lie.
I played pre-season, got my preferred team all lined up and ready to go; only to realise that you need 14 players under the age of 12 with double-barrelled names and dual Romanian-Egyptian heritage in the starting 11 in order to play in competitive matches (<- exaggeration).
To be fair, pillar of the community and Romanian football delegate FM Pressure then said to me, after the fact. “You should’ve asked, I’d have told you the pitfalls.” I guess I’ll know for next time.
As a result, predicted key man Marian Anghelina (Jolie) had to drop out of the “first choice” starting eleven, and young and aggressive but otherwise underwhelming midfielder Dragoş Albu had to play most of the time instead.
In a similar extension of this narrative arc, I had predicted Valentin Munteanu to be our key source of creativity down the right-hand side. Nope. He also had to be largely displaced for a younger model, the more handsome but lesser footballer, Samuel Zimţa.
I had previously called out that we needed a new goalkeeper, so in came Ismet Kisyo, a promising young Bulgarian. On a free of course. Unfortunately it turned out he wasn’t young enough. So to satisfy the u18 rule, I had to play our existing youth keeper, Robert ‘Big’ Popa instead. I didn’t misunderstand his age, just the league rules. I’m not a (complete) moron.
Thankfully Popa is actually a really good prospect and improved immensely across this first season. What you see below to the right is him after an entire season of small but steady attribute improvements. A happy accident.
I made one other signing. A wonderful Uruguayan man. His goals fired us to the title, and I hope he stays here until the end of time. I love him. Introducing Williams Peralta.
After 25 goals in 27 games coupled with 9 assists and an average rating of 7.54, Peralta‘s initial nine month deal signed as a free agent (obviously), turned into a no-brainer decision to offer a three year contract to a man who will be 36 years old when it expires. I hope he plays (and lives) forever.
Tactically, as I’ve mentioned, our aggressive 442 worked well for us. The deep-lying playmaker knocked timely lofted forward passes at the right time whenever the marauding wingers weren’t an attacking option. The full backs focused mainly on their defensive duties and a pressing and an advanced forward partnership complemented a generic central midfielder who regularly moved into the channels to create “pockets of space.”
I particularly liked the spread of assist types, a penchant for placed finishes exhibiting good technique, a tendency to start games on the front foot by scoring early and the team creating just under 2 clear cut chances every 90 minutes, while conceding just over 1.
These numbers are taken from the in-game analysis. They are nice and useful when thinking about what works well and what doesn’t in your tactical approach, even if the numbers can be inconsistent due to known FM issues.
Look at the analysis with your eyes, now, below. The SciSports polygon and graphical plots from the end of season review are at the end of the article. Because that’s a more logical place to put them.
Worth mentioning too was that U Craiova 1948 captain William Baeten also loved a long-range driver. I say loved; he only scored three goals all season, and two of them were in one game. They were both so good, however, that it was worth immortalising them below. The second goal and the Baet-man‘s player profile are in the comments of the Tweet if you use your mouse or trackpad, hover your arrow somewhere specific and do that clicking thing I’ve read about.
What else happened?
We had a youth intake that didn’t produce anything worthwhile, and why would it? Our facilities are woeful.
The board inexplicably decided to build a new stadium despite our financial situation being what could kindly be described as “in freefall” but I did manage to bag a coaching badge before the board realised there was literally no money left.
We hired a new Director of Football who used to play for Paris Saint Germain so therefore must be brilliant, and hired a new coach and chief scout. One I vividly remember playing for Real Madrid, Chelsea and Newcastle, and the other played for Sevilla and was capped a million times for Mexico. We pay absolute buttons to these staff members, but more fool them if they are happy to do the job.
Now this is where it gets subjectively interesting.
My thinking was (because I am a realist) that when we get promoted to the top tier, there will still be absolutely no money in the bank. The guaranteed wage rises that already feature as part of the vast majority of player contracts in the squad (pretty much everyone will be paid 25% more when we move up) will kill any hope of having a transfer budget of any description. Plus, there’s the new stadium still to pay for. This in turn will destroy any chances of me being able to tell the board of any prospective new club we may move to in future that I am “good” at managing in situations with a limited budget. Merrily skipping into bankruptcy was not on the agenda, nor is it a good look.
Then something crazy happened that confirmed to me that it was definitely time to leave.
I was offered the opportunity to be interviewed for the Cluj job, arguably the biggest club job in Romania. I hadn’t applied, it was nice to be asked. My stock must have been high.
This little invite ultimately led to an absurd over-confidence in the ability of the manager to move up the career ladder and get a better job this early on.
Ultimately, Cluj chose to hire Cosmin Contra instead. A 72-times capped former manager of the Romanian national team who previously played for both Milan and Atlético Madrid. How that was preferable to a German with less than 30 matches on his CV along with a National B licence and not a single attribute yet near 10, I’ll never know.
With my contract expiring (and moving to a rolling one) I effectively applied for EVERYTHING. Semi-professional teams in Denmark’s lower tiers? Check. A Finnish team who are solely made up of part timers? Check. A South Korean team with 7 players in their first squad? A Colombian second tier side adrift at the bottom of their table? Check and check.
It wasn’t looking promising. I’ve never been “laughed off” so often in my life.
Effectively I chose gambling to stay at U Craiova 1948 for at least another season over unemployment and applying for roles for months. A three-year deal was signed, and we soldier on.
We do get to play against bitter (and much, much better than us) rivals CS Craiova next season, so I guess my situation this early in a journeyman save is nothing to “Crai ova” (thanks Ed, I didn’t think you’d mind if I shamelessly stole that one).
You could say that failing to find the next step on the ladder after a strong first season is a horrible failure (like my good friend Rock’s End FM suggests), or that another season in Romania might just do our job prospects the world of good.
This new series, which I’m calling Everywhere Else, is going to be a bit different for me. Since finishing the more serious (as serious as it can be when it is about a computer game) writing of my recent La SombraRayo Vallecano series, I wanted to take a more light-hearted approach to another batch of FM21 writing. Casually put together, I’ll stick to shorter posts tracking progress, tactics, players and results.
I’ll be thinking out loud, so I’ll pivot from scouting to player comparisons to performance statistics, and whatever else comes to mind as I work my way through the series.
This new save is a journeyman, starting unemployed (obviously), but with no set end goal(s) or conditions, other than that none of the so-called ‘big’ leagues are loaded up this time, as I wanted a break from the ordinary.
Therefore, the initially available leagues are as follows:
Meet Robert Vonsen. He’s a 39-year-old German with a decent grasp of English. Loves Augsburg, a classic 442 and likes his players to be aggressive and brave. Typical.
Unemployed, barely a coach, but on the lookout for a manager’s job. There is a handful of jobs available at the start. Interviews are coming thick and fast, but where will we take our first steps? PFK Montana of Bulgaria? FK Blansko of Czech Republic? Rapid București of Romania?
I am afraid to tell you that they all said “no.”
Someone did say yes though! Robert Vonsen successfully interviews for the U Craiova 1948 job in the Romanian second division. I told myself I’d accept whichever team accepted us first, to get playing as soon as possible; ideally with the chance of managing a decent pre-season spell before the first campaign kicks off in anger.
Founded in 2017 and valued at £23.4k, don’t confuse U Craiova 1948 with their bitter rivals CS Craiova, four-time winners of Romania’s top division, Casa Liga 1.
It’s a complicated story between the two teams as to why both exist in parallel. Sort of Wimbledon / MK Dons-esque but more confusing and controversial.
I landed in Romania mostly by chance, after applying for all the available jobs and seeing who said yes first; but for a more focused Romanian save (he begins there), have a look at fellow angry Scottish blogger FM Pressure and his website.
First things first. No disrespect to Romania’s second tier, but the quality of players isn’t of the same level as the ones in the heady heights of 2026’s LaLiga that I’ve been used to seeing recently, so I choose to adjust the attribute colour thresholds accordingly, so I can better judge talent relative to our level.
Next, I review the squad’s strengths and weaknesses, build a system, then sort out team and individual training for every player and age group, because I’m a masochist who can’t bear the thought of it being automated. The 442 is going to fit in well here and with this group, I reckon. There are a few players who look capable of playing actual football, but a few glaring issues to address too. As I always like to do, I keep attribute masking on and close the first transfer window.
This way I can identify the team’s problems, but realistically can’t address them until the next transfer window. Even then, my manager has such a low experience level, I won’t be able to see 95% of any player’s attribute profiles outside of my own for the first few years anyway, until I improve. Every signing will therefore be a risk/educated guess. I imagine I won’t have much (or any) funds to build a decent scouting system.
Was this really a good idea? I guess it will be challenging if nothing else.
The board expect us to get to the fifth round of the Romanian cup. We enter at the third round, so fingers crossed that is ticked off.
We also need to be promoted to the top tier. There is an unusual system where everyone in the division plays each other once (20 matches) then the top six go into a playoff group where everyone plays each other twice (a further 10 matches) then the top two sides gain promotion.
There are also some non-EU and homegrown player requirements, which I am sure I will get used to in time.
The players and system
As I mentioned earlier, there are a few players who seem fairly decent. One in particular I like the look of is central midfielder Anghelina (Jolie, presumably).
On the other hand, some of the team’s challenges are obvious. Our goalkeeper needs replaced, our best striker is hardly clinical, and there is no strength in depth whatsoever.
442 is the system. Anghelina will be expected to run the midfield, while Munteanu on the right will be our main creative outlet. The full-backs will be asked mainly to defend, and while Raducano can’t finish or run, he is reasonably strong, decent in the air and can pass a bit. If he can occupy defenders, perhaps Bălan can get in behind and grab a goal or ten.
Baeten isn’t the most creative player to set as our playmaker, but he is a decent all-round midfielder and our new captain. I need Anghelina to be everywhere at once in the midfield, hence asking him to move into channels as a central midfielder on support duty, but these two partners may switch roles if it doesn’t work on the pitch as I intend it to.
We know why we are here. It’s the first step in a journeyman. My aims are to get promotion to get that all important reputation boost that comes with silverware. Hopefully, we can complete a couple of coaching badges along the way and then a bigger team comes calling.
Before that happens however, we need reinforcements when it becomes technically (because the first window is shut) and financially (because we are poor) possible. Otherwise, I can see my laptop being fired out of a window when we inevitably ship a hell of a lot of silly goals to teams we should really be beating.
This is post eleven of a wider series. To instead start at post one, please click here.
18 May 2026
In last July, ahead of the 2025/26 season; the bookmakers published their pre-season odds on LaLiga winners and losers, as they always do. Looking for a fourth league title in a row, Marcelo Gallardo‘s Barcelona were logically considered evens favourites. It’s no surprise that Zinedine Zidane‘s Real Madrid were second favourites at 7-2.
Despite previous LaLiga finishes of 6th, 7th, 2nd and 4th since their promotion under Fernando Teixidó in the 20/21 season, the bookmakers tipped historically thrifty upstarts Rayo Vallecano to finish 9th. The ‘poor but proud’ Madrid club were priced at 50-1 for the title. To put things in perspective, Valencia were tipped at 20-1 to win LaLiga. The same Valencia who hadn’t finished in a Champions League qualification place for five years.
Lots happened in the 25/26 campaign to confound the critics, bookmakers and fans alike. Let’s get into it.
Fast forward nine months to the present day and the landscape of Spanish football has been turned upside down.
Basque giants Athletic Club are competing in Spain’s second tier for the first time in their history and as it stands sit 4th in the table with three league games remaining. No guarantee of an instant return to LaLiga.
Zidane is currently unemployed after being sacked for poor performance to end a stop-start 25 years at Real Madrid as a player, coach and then manager. Interim boss Alfredo Merino will step aside at the end of the season when current Juventus manager Mauricio Pochettino will make his long-awaited move to the Bernabéu. The Argentine’s arrival can’t come quickly enough for Los Blancos. Real Madrid finished in 8th this season, missing out on UEFA competition qualification of any description and finishing in their worst league position since 1977.
Rayo Vallecano owner Raúl Martín Presafinally sold up and moved on, selling the club for an extremely healthy profit. According to economic reports, El Rayo‘s value has increased from around £15.5million in 2020 (when Fernando Teixidó took the job) to a reported £1billion in this year’s tax year-end records. The new board are made up of wealthy Spanish businessmen. Their first order of business was paying off the circa £35million loan taken out to build the new ‘Rayo VallecanoStadium’ scheduled to open in Madrid later this year. Their second was to arrange for the incoming transfers of two sought after footballers they had mentioned in their pitch to buy the club. Those players were AZ‘s Steve Spiering and Athletic‘s Nico Serrano. Both are explosive wingers in their early 20s with huge sell-on potential and the skillset to get Rayistas off the edge of their seats to applaud, but more on them later. The combined outlay for the two transfers could rise to £112.5million. By comparison, Rayo’s previous transfer spend record was the £4.6million Teixidó parted with in July 2025 for flop winger Ştefan Baiaram, who has since moved on to Standard Liège.
Oh, and Rayo Vallecano won LaLiga.
Rayo Vallecano are the LaLiga champions of the 2025/26 season. It’s true.
A two-horse race between the ‘little’ Madrid club and Barcelona ended in Rayo ‘doing a Leicester’ and lifting the title. After the just two points which separated those two (Barcelona finished second despite only losing a single league game), Atlético were some 19 points further behind, with Real Zaragoza surprisingly filling out the UEFA Champions League places.
It was quite a season.
Rayo Vallecano under Teixidó have been a mercurial phenomenon. Last season, Rayo fans had to witness a ten game losing streak which was covered in detail by my theangrylinesmen colleague Carl Hagedorn in this linked article. Luckily for Rayo, the streak was sandwiched between a first and final third of the campaign where they showed almost untouchable form, a steely work ethic defining their counter-attacking strategy. This in turn saved what could have been a dark stain on Fernando Teixidó‘s otherwise stellar CV.
This year, El Rayo continued in that positive vein. Many expected the losses to come eventually, but apart from a slim 3-2 away defeat to Sevilla on the 1st of February, they never did. Form started strongly, and so it stayed.
It seems like an easy judgement or observation to put Rayo Vallecano‘s incredible year down to fortuitous timing, but that is to discredit the spirit shown by the eventual champions.
Scoring three goals or more in 47% of their LaLiga matches, Rayo’s 95 goals scored in the 38 matches was some 31 more strikes than nearest rival Atlético Madrid if you remove the incredible outlier of Barcelona‘s 113 goal haul. Conceding 0.86 goals per game was the third least in the division too. So Rayo were as defensively sound as they were offensively clinical. This is where some of the statistical comparisons against previous seasons can prove incredibly useful.
While the ratio of tackles won, pass completion success and shots on target percentage remained largely the same as the previous campaign, the 25/26 iteration of Rayo scored an average of almost a goal more per game (2.5), while conceding 0.37 goals less per league match. Scoring 2.5 times per game against an xG of 1.93 is a marked overperformance; while conceding 0.87 against 0.94 xG conceded per match is largely par for the course in the SciSports xG model, yet no less impressive.
What many could call a “freak” season could arguably be explained by a series of serendipitous circumstances for the triumphant Rayistas, complementing those great performances.
Mid-season injuries to regular strikers Antoñín and Astrit Selmani forced Teixidó’s hand into prematurely promoting Francisco Pereira. Pereira was a 19-year-old striker who had been plucked from semi-professional Amarante in his native Portugal for just under £55,000 a couple of years earlier. Pereira spent most of his time in Rayo’s development B-team, with the exception of a loan last year at Tenerife where he caught the eye in the final third playing in a team that were ultimately relegated due to defensive frailties and lack of midfield creativity. The result was that Francisco Pereira slotted in as the furthest forward attacker on the field in Teixidó’s 4-4-2, and the young Portuguese ended up bagging 18 goals and 8 assists in just 21 matches. Incredible.
Additionally, just when the defence was looking a little tired and weary, Teixidó arranged to part with some £15million for defensive pair Abdou Diallo from Lyon and Emerson from Inter Milan. Diallo had previously lifted Ligue 1 with Paris Saint Germain a couple of times, whereas ex Barcelona right back Emerson had been in and out of Inter’s team for the past four seasons. Both went on to play in 19 and 18 games respectively since joining Rayo, forming two defensive mainstays in Teixidó’s back four. Rayo had signed some quality players previously, but usually from the lower divisions or plucked from obscurity abroad, not two mid-to-late 20s first teamers at large European clubs, paying handsome wages.
Rayo’s relative success against their own expectations in the last few years has meant that times had changed financially, but not in comparison to how they were destined to this year.
Jorge Rodriguez had been rumoured to be putting together an all-Spanish consortium with a view to buying a LaLiga club for some time. Rodriguez owns several hydropower operations, and many of the consortium are similar “family” businessmen who have had a collective eye on purchasing a football club. In 2023, the story goes that Eibar were set to be purchased by the group of investors, only for the sale to fall through when they were unexpectedly relegated at the end of that season after a dismal drop off in form towards the end of the campaign.
As mentioned previously, Rodriguez and co made bold promises during the takeover process. Typical of these scenarios (see the ultimately ridiculous ‘Mbappe to Newcastle’ rumours in 2020) lots of big names were circulated as possible Rayo signings when the loan debt was cleared after the new owners’ arrival.
There were two names mentioned by Rodriguez and signing them turned out to be a lot more than just excitable hyperbole.
AZ‘s gifted winger Steve Spierings was taking the Eredivisie by storm. Goals, assists, mazy dribbling runs complemented by terrifying pace and a strong work ethic, Spierings had been linked with some of Europe’s top clubs over the last 12 months, and it’s easy to see why. A fee rising to £63million later however, and he was a Rayo player. The Dutchman signed in January 2026. In his half season so far at the club he has managed 25 appearances, 12 goals, 10 assists and 7 man of the match awards. Despite his late arrival, Steve Spierings won the LaLiga Player of the Year award.
Sometimes spending big can backfire spectacularly. Other times it’s a match made in heaven.
Unveiled jointly with Spierings was Nico Serrano. A similar player to the Dutchman, but the Basque winger generally plays on the opposite flank. Technically gifted and exceptionally quick and agile, Serrano also has the advantage of being 6 foot tall and good in the air. Capped twice for Spain by the time he turned 21, signing Serrano was arguably an even bigger statement of intent from Rayo’s new board. Especially given that he is a Spain international who arguably could have been on his way to Barcelona or PSG. Both of whom were said to be tracking his progress. £49.5million is the ultimate fee that will be paid for Serrano, including conditions.
The two lively wingers delivered a massive boost to Rayo, just at the right moment in mid-season. The combination of their impact plus the experienced additions in defence steadied the ship, creating a delicately balanced cocktail of stable performances; ultimately leading to the lifting of the LaLiga trophy on the final day.
Rayo Vallecano are ‘poor but proud’ no more.
Mention must go to Diogo Nascimento and Þorsteinn Björnsson. The youthful central midfield pairing consistently displayed the right combination of technique and grit to carry entire matches for Rayo.
We at theangrylinesmen have written at length before about the divisive nature of statistical data analysis, so the below plot aims to visualise it simply.
Attacking contribution considers key passes, chances created, assists, shots on target, goals and xG per 90 and xG per shot.
Defensive performance includes interceptions, tackles, and an adjusted figure for headers won per 90.
Left-back Juan Miranda was crucial in defence, while playmaker Diogo Nascimento was key in a creative sense. There is no surprise that Steve Spierings proved to be the second most useful attacking force, while contributing more in a defensive perspective than some of Rayo’s centre-backs and defensive midfielders. Incredible.
We’ve covered Gaoussou Traoré in detail before, and the now 19 year old is making great strides towards becoming a first team regular (12 goals in 20 league appearances this year), but “GT” isn’t the only young striker catching the eye.
Eugenio Fidalgo was a £1.2million capture from Marbella when he had just turned 16 years old. Eyebrows were raised when that figure was parted with for a player so young, but now it looks like an outright bargain. Now 17, he bagged 85 goals in 60 appearances for Julio Baptista‘s Rayo under-19 side, and now looks to be the ‘next big thing.’ Look out for theangrylinesmenpodcast, where self-confessed Rayo fan Carl Hagedorn is preparing to wax lyrical about this prospect’s potential. Even Rayo fans on Twitter are paying attention.
Last but certainly not least, investment continued into the future potential of the team. The £6.5million Argentinian attacker has a name which reminds me of another Argentinian footballer, I just can’t place who.
What else happened?
Rayo performed admirably in the UEFA Champions League, managing to defeat Marseille and Manchester City, but it wasn’t enough to prevent dropping into the Europa League. Torino were dispatched 6-3 on aggregate, but Leverkusen proved a bridge too far. The European dream was over.
Semi-final exits in both Spanish cups were impressive and entirely acceptable results, and even gave Teixidó the opportunity to give first team minutes to many fringe players.
It even included Rayo’s record goalscorer Astrit Selmani‘s 70th strike. It was quite a volley.
This is where it gets tricky. New owners, a new stadium, a glut of developing young players itching to burst into the first team. Rayo Vallecano are the dream project for any promising manager right now. The dream continues, right?
What of current boss Fernando Teixidó? Six years in charge, 300 competitive matches in total, Teixidó has achieved inarguably more than anyone could have thought. More than just emerging from ‘la sombra’ or ‘the shadow’ of Real Madrid and Atlético, Teixidó’s Rayo have gone one better, finishing above both for the second time in six years, even beating Barcelona to the LaLiga title.
172 victories in 300 competitive games, two trophies and (excluding the fees paid by the board for the two new wingers which Teixidó did not instruct) a transfer spend of only £50.5m over six years.
The Peruvian’s contract runs until the summer of 2029, but rumours are building that Teixidó may step down from Rayo Vallecano to take a break from management in the next few weeks. Remember Pep Guardiola‘s exit from Barcelona when his stock was arguably at its highest, just before an inevitable burnout could occur? That could be Fernando Teixidó at this point.
Having lost just one league game all season, only an invincible campaign and further progression in Europe could really better the 25/26 campaign that has just finished. Is it even possible for Rayo Vallecano? Has Teixidó taken them to their ceiling?
Ancient Greek statesman Pericles said it best when he said, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
The impact of Fernando Teixidó has been incredible in Vallecas. A small working-class community are now supporters of the champions of Spain. With his legacy of humility, nobility and integrity now cemented in Rayo lore and two trophies in the cabinet, is it time to go?
If Teixidó does choose to leave Rayo Vallecano in the coming weeks to take a break or to seek a new challenge, one thing is for sure. He’s earned it.