Grigor Pasha writes: Our 2021-22 season in Liga 2 started well. We went unbeaten for 10 games. Then, having lost to Hermannstadt on 26 September, we didn’t lose again (in the league) until 9 April, when we lost to Universitatea Cluj.
Before the Cluj game we looked nailed-on for automatic promotion. After that game,we didn’t win again in the regular season. From our last 8 games we took only 5 of the 24 available.
We fell out of the automatic placings, finishing in the play-off spot (i.e., 3rd). (Editor’s note: More on the play-offs another time.)
Whenever we review a season, we tend to focus on such things as tactics, transfers, and injuries.
All of these things play a role.
But the way I look at these things has changed as a result of reading an article by some guy called Du Malone: ‘Your performance isn’t all down to you‘.
The article made me appreciate the role of exogenous factors (aka Luck) more.
Looking back at the season through that lens, I realise our success, such as it was, was in no small way down to a quirk in scheduling.
Romania has a long winter break. In order to fit in the fixture programme, Liga 2 has always (well, at least in the three years I’ve been at Farul Constanta) had a testing spring programme. Almost as soon as you’re back from the break, you’re into playing two matches per week.
The 2021-22 season was no different in that regard. Where it was different was that it that the start of the season (in late summer and early autumn) was similarly demanding.
Now as a manager I’m fanatical about player fitness. I’m a fitness coach myself — a very good one, I’ll have you know. And I obsess about monitoring and the condition and match fitness of my players.
My response to fixture congestion was to rotate. Bigly.
Ideally I like the players I select to have a condition of at least 95%.
94% I can live with, but I don’t want very many players on 94% — that would produce a jaded performance and I’d finish with a bunch of players who wouldn’t be able to get their condition back up in time for the next fixture. On occasion, I did pick a 93 percenter — but very rarely and very reluctantly.
So I rotated a lot. As a result I ended up with a bunch of players in great condition. And also happy, because everyone, bar the two 17 year-old back-up goalies, got plenty of game time.
The policy was workable because I operate an informal wage-cap. I don’t award contracts of more than £10k per year.
Well, that’s not quite true. In 2021-22 I allowed a few players to creep over that mark. Mihai Ene, the club captain, is on £11k. I like Mihai.
The reasoning behind the wage cap has nothing to do with fitness. I operate the policy for two reasons:
- I hold back money so that it can be used for bonuses. My players tend to get well rewarded for achievements such as keeping clean sheets and avoiding relegation.
- I spend way below the wage budget so that the club can become profitable and invest money in such resources as additional staff.
But the policy has an unintentional consequence– one that I’m fine with. It meant we had a very flat squad — one without stars and with no great distinction between first and second choice players. Indeed, I was often unsure which was which. The squad status for many of our players is ‘squad player’ or ‘fringe player’ or below.
As a result, rotation becomes easy. The players all get regular game time without anybody having their nose put out of joint. This makes for great fitness, which in turn reduces injuries, and for group spirit.
The key point regarding performance is that our team was constantly starting games in better condition than the opposition.
We could then capitalise on this advantage, particularly late on in games — indeed sometimes even late on in the first half. Sometimes I experimented with moving to a higher tempo in an effort to exploit jadedness on the part of the opposition.
It is I think no coincidence that our results fell off as the fixture list thinned and weekly, rather than twice-weekly, fixture became the norm. We lost the advantage of superior fitness.
Overall, then, it seems that our success, until April, was in no small measure down to the combination of (a) an exogenous factor (scheduling) and (b) the unintended consequence of another factor, namely the wage cap.