Can a unicorn even play football?
We should start with an explanation, but I’m probably best off leaving that in the hands of Michael Cox, Ali Maxwell, and Tom Worville. On an episode of the Zonal Marking podcast they endevoured to put together a team of unicorns; players who for any number of reasons were outliers, unique in their position amongst their peers. Defenders that don’t tackle, defensive midfielders that are always in the opposition box, and wingers who don’t.. wing. They ended up with a starting 11, an ideal formation with suitable roles for each player, a manager, and a handful of subs. A team that ultiamtely looks something like the graphic below…
Someone, with entirely too much time on their hands, and with a desperate search for any form of covid-safe entertainment, has put this team together. They’ve gone through the borderline nightmarish Football Manager editor for at least 20 minutes and replaced a whole Premier League club with a bunch of average footballers and Casemiro. They’ve listened to the podcast sentence by sentence in order to pick the roles and instructions that hopefully best fit the suggested players, picked the team, filled out the subs bench, realised they’d missed Michail Antonio and Silas Wamangituka so brought them in using the In Game Editor, and not bothered to take another screenshot.
And whilst I have to be honest and say that it mainly started out as a joke that I could tweet at the podcast presenters, it really got me thinking. Could this team of 3-star wonders actually do anything useful as a group? Would relegation threaten them immeadiately, or was there the chance of making it into continental football next season? The thoughts lodged themselves well and truly in my brain, and there was no shaking them.
Before We Begin
There is, naturally, some housekeeping to attend to, primarily an apology to any Eagles fans. Initially I just needed a random club to mess about with for five minutes, so when I drew a random number that I matched with last seasons league finish it was nothing more than a case of unlucky number 14 for Palace. Then I decided to play a whole season as them and apparently I couldn’t think of a fairer way to do it than to will Crystal Palace out of existence. Again, I’m very sorry.
Given that the team on the pitch would be, in theory, as unique as possible, I decided to average out some details about the club. So we moved our home to as middle-of-the-country as I could think; the brand new iteration of St. George’s Park. 27,500 seats, top class facilities, and with neigbours Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium as the base for our youth sides. I’m sure there’s not a Palace fan alive that won’t be excited about their first 5ish hour round trip for home games. I imagine they’ll have never looked forward to playing away at Chelsea more.
With the facilities in place I decided to leave most of the backroom staff unchanged. The chaps on Zonal Marking didn’t mention anything beyond a manager, so I thought I’d wait and see how the season played out before making too many big changes behind the scenes. I did make one big move however. The manager put forward to corral and manage this herd of mythical beasts was none other than Marcelo Bielsa. And whilst the football fan in me wanted to give him the reigns and see what happened, the Football Manager fan in me wanted to take charge myself. El Loco was brought in to be my assistant manager, and to be honest if he tells me anything that isn’t about changing the formation i’m probably gonna listen to him. You don’t pay the big bucks just for the bucket.
I thought for a very brief second about bringing in Massimo Cellino as the chairman and Alan Pardew as Director Of Football, for the chaotic ownership energy and Mascherano-and-Tevez-purchasing-gumption respectively, but decided against it. We’ll see by Christmas if it’s all going too calmly and I want to scare the shit out of myself by being under the threat of unemployment every waking second of my life.
At this point Ali Maxwell was good enough to point out both the aforementioned Wamangituka snub and a couple of EFL players I might want to use to fill out my bench. So I brought in Kai Naismith and Lucas Akins to nearly round out my squad. To feel like I was at least taking it somewhat seriously I felt I’d need a second choice keeper, mainly to avoid having to dip into Palace’s youth ranks. So at great expense (…nothing) I moved Romain Salin from Stade Rennais to QUFC. A quick search on FBREF marked him out as the keeper who’s ‘defensive actions’ were most likely to be outside his own penalty area, as well as being second only to Alisson in terms of how far away from his box he was probably going to be. He kinda middled out in terms of Post-Shot xG, save percentage, and clean sheets. But I am going to be playing with an aggressively sweeping keeper, so let’s see if we can’t drag those averages down should Reina need the cover.
And Away We Go
As you can see from the Team Report there are a number of areas we might be worried about. Mainly everything in our half of the pitch including, but not limited to, every single possible thing about our goalkeepers. On the plus side we seem to have four possible right backs in a squad of twenty players. Swings and roundabouts, really. Regardless, on to pre-season! And what an incosistent job Marcelo made of our selection of friendlies. Getting completely FMed by Beerschot, running riot all over Vienna, and a hat trick for Conor Coady. The man really is a good, he did the Zonal Marking team’s tactics proud, and set an absolutely terrifying precedent for the season to come.
As a small aside around this time we were linked with buying Emi Buendia, apparently willing to part with £36 million to get him. Thought I’d take a quick look at his stats and to be fair, in the 19-20 PL season he was the arguably the attacking midfielder with the best defensive stats, coming top of the charts for tackles won, way above average for tackling dribblers, and generally all round impressive at blocking and intercepting.
But we’ve got Burton Albion’s Lucas Akins so…
First game of the season, home against Brighton, A23 derby… oh wait. M25-M40-M42 derby? Anyway, before the game Bielsa told the press (yes I’m feeling quite guilty about making him do all the press conferences) that the team is developing well and they are working towards the right mentality and philosophy. You’ve got more confidence than me, Marcelo. And so, to the match…
Bloody hell. Bloody. Hell. Although, with the exception of the number of shots on target we managed, not terrible? According to the press we missed a chance to win, so i’ll take that.
And Away We’ve Gone
So that’s the prep and the start of the season. I’m feeling slightly more confident than I was when I first loaded up the database, but not by much. The main problem definitely feels like the lack of squad depth. Twenty players in a Premier League season feels a little bit on the light side for me. But we’ll cross our fingers and pray to Edward Richmond, the head physio, that everyone stays fit.
The next entry will cover the first third-ish of the season, so get your Santa hats ready and I’ll see you at Christmas!