I always envisioned that if I ever became, for example, the England manager, I’d pick my sides the right way. I’d pick a system and pick players to fit that system. I’d favour hard workers, team players and good personalities to make a revolutionary England side that could dominate and battle in equal measure and could also be trusted not to turn into rather unconvincing stone statues of themselves the moment a major tournament started. We’d build a club mentality, put round pegs in round holes and we wouldn’t just bring in whichever 16 year old happens to score on his professional debut the week before the squad selection deadline just to appease the England fans and their literally insatiable desire for players to be dropped the moment they turn 24 and replaced with teenagers. We’d be rational and measured about new call ups and how they’d fit into the side and we’d be a fucking team for once. It sounds great on paper doesn’t it.
The problem is that while this approach is very doable if you’re managing one of the larger nations with large pools of players to choose from, things are very different when you’re managing a small team with a small pool to choose from. Like for example if you’re managing Liechtenstein. If you’re managing a nation like Liechtenstein your options are quite limited in that you have about 15 eligible chaps that you can describe with at least some degree of accuracy as “Footballers”, most of whom are holding out for a call up from the Swiss, so you’d better just make do with whoever you can get and pray furiously to your chosen deity that they gel together or you’re going to be a bit buggered.
So without further ado, let’s meet the players I dragged… Er I mean called up to the Liechtenstein squad to be in my preliminary starting lineup.
Goalkeeper – No 1 – Benji Büchel
If I tell you that our starting goalkeeper is currently doing sod all warming the bench for English League One side Oxford United, it’ll probably give you an unrealistically high expectation of the rest of the squad. Seriously. Nevertheless I do genuinely think he’s quite a good goalkeeper. At 30 and with 27 caps he’s got some experience behind him and should be in his prime or there abouts, at 6’2″ he’s a dominant figure in the area and in general he’s just a well rounded goalkeeper and a safe pair of hands. I wish Oxford would throw him at least a cup game once in a while though because at the minute you might say that they’re hiding his light under a Büchel.
Right Defensive Full Back – No 2 – Daniel Kaufmann
In case I’ve never formally introduced myself, hello, my name’s Franjo and I play natural centre backs at full back in a style reminiscent of Tony Pulis. To be fair, having scoured the nation for an actual right full back I wasn’t exactly bowled over by my options so I thought that Kaufmann would do a job. At this point I should probably mention FC Vaduz, a club based in the capital of Liechtenstein of the same name that are playing in the Swiss Challenge League, having been relegated from the top tier in the Summer. They’re sort of the Swansea of the Swiss football league system and we’ll be hearing about them quite a lot because basically every player in the Liechtensteiner National pool has played for them at some point, including Kaufmann who played for them for 7 years. He’s currently playing his club football for amateur side La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Swiss 3rd tier, but is another experienced International at 29 years old and with 60 Caps and at 6’1 is a good fit for my usual style of fullback. He’s physical enough to get by, has half a brain and can defend and I think that’s about as much as I can ask for.
Defensive Centre Back – No 4 – Simone Grippo
Now that’s more like it. I’m hoping that as long as we have a relatively strong spine we’ll have the basis of a decent team and that spine starts with Grippo. Predictably, and we’ll see a pattern start to emerge with our better players, Simone’s of Italian descent and played for Switzerland at all youth levels before finally settling for Liechtenstein 2 years ago when he gained citizenship after spending 5 years at FC Vaduz. He’s since earned a move to Sparta Rotterdam in the Eredivisie, and little wonder as he’s a brilliant all round defender and holding midfielder, if a little slow. At 6’2″ he’s another big unit and at 31 he’s in his prime, so I’m very excited to see how he does for us.
Centre Back – No 5 – Maximilian Göppel
Bringing a bit of youth into the side, I originally wanted 22 year old Max to be my starting left back, but having realised that Kaufmann’s going to play on the right and not in the centre, a lack of options means that Max is going in at centre back. He’s currently playing for Vaduz, because obviously, and already has 27 caps at quite a young age. His main strength is his brilliant pace, which I’m hoping will mean he pairs well with Grippo, but he’s a decently rounded defender. The only thing that irks me is that he’s 5’11” and not great in the air, but again, hopefully Grippo will compensate for that.
Left Defensive Full Back – No 3 – Roman Spirig
So with Max Göppel playing at centre back, a chance has presented itself to Roman Spirig, who’s also 22, started out at Vaduz and is currently contracted to Czech First Division (Top tier) side Sigma Olomouc. He’s probably a more rounded player than Göppel and is certainly a better ball winner and decision maker, but he doesn’t have any of that electrifying pace, which does worry me slightly as he’ll be playing opposite wingers, who generally speaking are the quickest players in a side. He’s pretty new to International football having made only 9 appearances, but I’m willing to bet that it’s because he’s constantly been playing second fiddle to Max at left back and I hope that he’ll grab this chance with both arms.
Defensive Ball Winning Midfielder and Captain – No 6 – Sandro Wieser
Sandro Wieser is an interesting player. When I first landed this job the first decision I had to make was to choose a captain, and seeing as my off-hand knowledge of the Liechtensteiner national team was sorely lacking, I decided to take the boring option and just keep the current captain and vice captain in place. Free agent Sandro, recently released by Championship side Reading, is another versatile central defensive player like Grippo, but for me he lacks a bit of class. Technically speaking he’s fine. He can win the ball and he’s comfortable on it, he’s good in the air and he can even smash in free kicks. Mentally he’s aggressive, brave and a team player, which I admire especially in a ball winning midfielder, and physically he’s OK. He’s not going to win any foot races but he’s strong and can get about the pitch relatively well. He’s not that great a leader, so I may consider his position in the future when deciding who gets to wear the lovely fluorescent armband. For now though, he’s still one of our better players and is still an important part of the team.
Defensive Deep Lying Playmaker and Vice-Captain – No 8 – Marcel Büchel (No Relation)
I don’t want to twist the knife for Sandro Wieser, but if I were to choose the captain now, it’d almost certainly be Marcel Büchel. I won’t, because without knowing this squad too well it’s difficult to know how they’d react. I could very soon have a mutiny on my hands if Sandro’s universally beloved and Marcel’s a complete dick. Anyway, Marcel’s without a doubt our best player, followed closely by Simone Grippo. He’s contracted to Steve Clarke’s Burnley side in the Premier League after spending his career bobbing between Serie B and Serie A in Italy, most notably “playing” for Juventus in the same way that Tomáš Kalas “played” for Chelsea. At 29 he’s another that’s probably in his prime and I think I’ll need him to pretty much run this team. He’s got an excellent footballing brain, he’s very good physically and he’s equally adept at defending, attacking and being the playmaker in a side.
Central Midfielder – No 7 – Vinzenz Flatz
This is where it all falls apart a little bit. For the life of me I couldn’t find a good central midfielder in the whole of Liechtenstein and I want the 2 actual good ones that I’ve mentioned so far to be varying degrees of holding man. Vinzenz Flats, to put it nicely, is the best of an awful bunch. He can tackle and he can pass, but that’s about all I can say for him. He did have one season at Vaduz but now plays for Kriens, a semi-professional Swiss team in the Promotion League (3rd tier) and at 25 and 5’11” he’s a good age and height, but I wouldn’t count on him becoming a regular in my side.
Right Winger – No 10 – Simon Kühne
In the ‘Ryan Moon’ attacking winger role, we have Simon Kühne. He’s another free agent, released back in the Summer by Swiss First League (4th tier) side USV Eschen/ Mauren. I think it’s a little harsh that nobody’s snapped him up though. He’s a decently rounded versatile forward and I reckon he’ll do a job on the right for us without any fireworks. Again, he’s a good age at 25, he’s a pretty hard worker and knows what he’s doing off the ball, which thinking about it actually is probably not a great “best quality” for a footballer.
Left Wing Target Man – No 11 – Pascal Schürpf
Yes, his surname might sound like the noise you make when you sip the residue from the lid of a can of pop, but Pascal is our left winger and he looks like a good quality player. Surprisingly, he plays for a team you may have heard of called FC Vaduz and is one of their main players. He’s something of an anti-winger, a term I’ve not really used since bringing Janga and Kwarko in on loan when I managed GieKSa. He towers above your average winger at 6’3″ and is very strong, good in the air and has most of the qualities you’d look for in a wide target man, although I’d like it if I could go 5 minutes without having to mention that one of my players has absolutely no determination. He’s another experienced player at 30 years old and is a very rounded player.
Advanced Forward – No 9 – Yanik Frick
Handily, our striker Yanik comes his own family friendly exclamation that I can make whenever we inevitably fail to score against a larger team. At 21 and with only 6 caps he’s pretty new on the International scene but I’ve got to say he’s got some relatively impressive pedigree. He’s on loan from Austrian Premier League side Sportclub Rheindorf Altach at Preußen Münster in the German Second Division and he’s got the makings of a decent centre forward. He’s 6’2″, relatively strong and quick and he’s got a decent first touch, can dribble and knows where the net is. I look forward to seeing how he develops because he could become a Liechtenstein stalwart for years to come with the right guidance.
These players will be brought together in my specially adapted Project: Foxy Mk III system. I thought as I designed the original for an underdog team and we’ve had a small amount of success with it in South Africa, it made sense to adapt it for my International side too, who will be the underdog in the majority of our matches. The main difference is that we’ll be setting up with 2 holding men to protect our defence; Wieser and Büchel, and we’ll be focussing everything down the wings, where our wide men can cross the ball in for Yanik.
My first match, as I may have mentioned, is against the Faroe Islands at home. The Faroe Islands are the 132nd best national team in the world, which means that they’re relatively easy pickings for 131 national teams. As for us, they’re a much sterner test as we’re currently sat at 162nd place in the FIFA rankings. As an International spectacle it seems a bit underwhelming when I walk out of the tunnel to see 2086 fans filling just over a quarter of the 7838 seater Rheinpark Stadion, partially shielded by the roofs over the stands from the rain drizzling down over Vaduz, but for me this is a special night. The referee blows his whistle and my first International match begins.
A quarter of an hour in we hit the Faroe Islands on the counter attack and Schürpf finds Yanik Frick just inside their half. Frick dribbles forwards over the sodden turf as the defenders backpedal to surround him, but he does quite well, getting to the edge of the box and shooting just over the bar.
The majority of the first half is nothing special, but we’re quite comfortable sitting deep and allowing the Faroe Islands to push high up on us and shooting from distance, or losing the ball and allowing us to counter. With 41 minutes played, Schürpf hits the left byline and drills a cross in to Frick, who collects the ball in the box with his back to goal. He squares it to Kühne, who stays calm and collected as he turns and places it into the far bottom corner to put us ahead.
Our goal seems to immediately rile our opposition though and when Hendriksson crosses the ball into our box from a deep free kick on the left a few minutes later, Nattestad gets a header at goal and rattles Büchel’s crossbar. Spirig puts it into row Z but as we enter 1st half injury time, the Faroe Islands keep plugging away and are rewarded when Giessing’s right wing cross to the far post is volleyed home from a tight angle by Magnussen, sending us in for the break with the scores all square.
Back in the changing room, I bring on experienced right back Yves Oehri for Max Göppel. Göppel’s pretty knackered by aside from that, I already regret my decision to play a centre back on the right and a left back in the centre. Yves may not be great, he may be 33 years old, he may not even be starting for SC YF Juventus, his Swiss 3rd tier side and he may be playing shit when he comes off the bench for them, but he’s played 66 times for this country and damn it, he’s a right back. Kaufmann moves into the centre.
Pascal Schürpf also makes way, again as he’s very tired, and I bring on Robin Gubser; a left winger with decent pace and not a whole lot else. At least he’s actually playing for SC YF Juventus, albeit not that well.
The pressure from the visitors doesn’t let up in the second half though, and it takes less than 7 minutes for Magnussen the goalscorer to tee up Hendriksson on the edge of the box, who’s venomous shot hits the bar, bounces against Benji Büchel’s back, rolls in agonising slow motion across the goalmouth and in.
A quarter of an hour later, they all but put the game to bed after Oehri gives away a free kick. Hendriksson crosses to the far post where an incomprehensibly unmarked Davidsen is waiting to twat the ball into the top corner with a scissor-kick volley, like a budget Scandinavian Paulo Di Canio.
Again if we haven’t met, Hello, I’m Franjo and when in doubt I get the Meatloaf out. With 25 minutes to go we change to the fluid 4-2-3-1 named after my 2nd favourite pet cat and I bring Guillaume Khous on in place of Vinzenz Flatz and stick him up front, with Frick dropping back into the hole. Guillaume is contracted to US Orléans in the French National league and is a natural striker who can also be applied on the left of a 3. He’s very physically fit and has a decent amount of skill.
With 10 minutes left we go on the attack in search of at least making the scoreline a bit more respectable, but we’re almost immediately caught out again when Hendriksson springs Danielsen in the right channel and he luckily shoots well wide of the near post.
As the clock ticks towards the 90 minute mark, we’re caught on the counter attack and Danielsen plays a good ball through the left channel for Thomsen. As he runs through on goal, Simone Grippo makes a brilliant last ditch slide tackle, but the loose ball rolls to Magnussen and he tees up Thomsen again, who blasts number 4 past Büchel.
I need a whiteboard. Somebody get me a whiteboard.
I’m creating a new system. Am I being rash? Probably, but I trust the little voice in my head that says “This system is not the way to go”, drowning out all the ones that tell me to burn things. I’ll keep it in mind as an option but what are friendlies for if not experimentation? I want simple, disciplined, defensive football and you don’t get that with a 4-2-1-2-1. The roman army didn’t scatter themselves about, being all continental and cool. They lined up in a row, got their shields out and formed a bloody impenetrable wall. Probably. My point is that we need old school football and an old school formation. We need solid banks of players to block our opponents off with a blockade of defensive solidity. We need to win the ball and either lump it into the box or just have a shot. Hence, Project: Liechtensteiner.
With Project: Liechtensteiner, we’ll be narrow, deep and compact and we’ll absolutely worship our defensive 4-5-1 shape, keeping it together at all times. We’ll be a 10 man defensive unit, with players encouraged to let the opposition have the ball and try to play it past us, secure in the knowledge that we’re making it as difficult as we possibly can.
The Faroe Islands beat us 1-4. Believe it or not, I didn’t take this job so that I could turn up every few months and watch us get battered. I know that it was our first match together and we went a bit ballsy towards the end, but while I’ll accept defeat against the Faroe Islands I won’t accept a battering. The worrying thing is that while the Faroe Islands are 132nd in the FIFA World Rankings, our next match is away at Denmark, who are 34th. We’ll have to hope that our new system pays dividends.
I’ve chosen to make one change for this match, with Roman Spirig coming out of the side and being replaced by Yves Oehri, who came on against the Faroe Islands. He plays at right back so that Kaufmann can move into the centre, and in turn Göppel can move onto the left.
Things don’t get off to a particularly good start for us. We keep Denmark quiet to begin with but with nearly 25 minutes played, Nissen finds space at the right byline to get a cross in and Falk heads the ball past Büchel and into the net.
Within 13 minutes though, we pull level again. Pascal Schürpf jinks past Nissen and has a pop from 30 yards, but just as the ball seems to be heading wide of the far post, Frick arrives 8 yards out to redirect the ball past the already committed Kasper Schmeichel and into the net. It’s a stroke of luck, but I’ll take it.
With 25 minutes to play, Marcel Büchel gives the ball away and the ball’s hurled back into our box. Göppel clears it before it can reach Poulsen at the far post but only as far as Thomsen, who tees up Pione Sisto to stroke the Danes back in front. They go close to a 3rd just a few minutes later, but when Bruun Larsen passes through for Jørgensen on the left, he shoots from too narrow an angle and into the side netting.
I then bring on Gubser again for Schürpf, who’s still lacking fitness, as well as 18 year old Vaduz central midfielder Yanik Negele in place of Flatz. Negele’s rated very highly by everyone involved in the Liechtensteiner set up and I’ll be keeping a close eye on him to see how he develops because Flatz hasn’t impressed me in that central midfield role and Negele could make the role his own.
We continue to be dominated and to be fair we continue to hold on, only really scared in the 87th minute when Durmisi’s corner is nodded on by Bruun Larsen and Zanka heads it against the top of the bar.
I feel like I find myself in this situation quite a lot; trying to convince myself why losses are a positive thing. Maybe it says something about the standard of team that I manage or maybe it says something about me as a manager thinking about it, but I think we can genuinely take a lot of heart from this result. For the majority of the match we held Denmark at arm’s reach, forcing them to try long shots from behind our wall of defenders and midfielders. We didn’t threaten much ourselves, but I didn’t expect us to and it was certainly a pleasant surprise that we scored against such quality opposition. Project: Liechtensteiner may be the way forwards but I’ll continue to think as I get to know the players better and better. For now though, I’ve overseen 2 matches as Liechtenstein Manager and although we lost them both, we improved significantly in the 2nd. I think I’m alright with that for now.