The end of a season is a time for reflection – for assessing what went well, what went badly, and the overall state of the squad ahead of a new season. For me personally, Season 1 at a new club is always an interesting time, as I adjust to the squad, the board and the league more generally.
The last time we talked about form, we were sitting in a comfortable mid-season position, but we were making a couple of tactical changes to try to arrest the decline in form which we experienced as we came into the winter break. By the end of December, we were pushing into the top half of the table and I made a couple of tactical adjustments to shore up our defence and try to hold the ball better.
Initially, I was struggling to believe that the changes worked well – we struggled to pick up results throughout January and February, although when I dug further into the detail, it was obvious that we were playing some difficult teams, and while I had been convinced that we were dropping points, in reality we were drawing games which I would have expected us to lose, and a big part of that was the more solid, controlled midfield trio.
I continued to adapt and tweak our tactics throughout the rest of the season, pushing us towards a high-pressing system, focused on winning the ball early and using it efficiently. I wanted to see us impose ourselves on the game, and turn up the pressure on opponents by moving them around the field using our passing.
We absolutely clicked in the later half of the season; losing just two of our last 9 league games to clutch up and finish in the European Playoff Places.
Never, in even the most remote way, did I anticipate a season like this so early in our Sparta career – especially given our lack of latitude in the transfer market, and the relative youth in our squad. What I found the most interesting about the way the Eredivisie works, is the play-off system for European places.
Because we finished 7th, we got put into the European Places Playoff, which is an additional stage to the season where 4th, 5th 6th and 7th face off to decide who gets the final European spot for the league. Playoff winners go into the 2nd qualifying round of the Europa League 2 – It might sound like the ‘mickey mouse’ cup, but for a club like Sparta, the reputational boost that good run would bring us is massive in terms of attracting and retaining talent at the club.
Before I talk about the playoffs, I feel like I should address the transfers and tactical changes that landed us into those playoff spots.
As I said earlier, we had next to nothing available in the transfer budget, so loans and free transfers were key. Lukas Mai and Batista Meier became key players for us throughout the season, while Tavares and van den Berg had parts to play in the run-in towards the end of the season. Chardell Karg was a mis-step, and is leaving again this summer, also for free (so we’ve really lost money there) while van Leeuwen will probably be moved on in the next transfer window (hopefully for some cash).
With the season wrapped up, our new-look (ish) tactic headed towards the European playoffs and an outside shot at the 2nd qualifying round of the Europa League. Our first opponent was FC Utrecht, who we just scraped past on the away goals rule:
With my nerves thoroughly shot, we moved on to the final – I honestly expected nothing from these playoffs, but to be so close to a European spot in our first season (having been predicted to finish 17th!), I felt that a lot of our efforts would have been wasted if we were to miss out.
So overall, A successful first season in Rotterdam, but the hard work starts now – I will spend pre-season tweaking our tactics some more to prepare for Europe and holding our own in the league; the board are expanding the stadium this summer, so I anticipate another tight transfer summer. I have also requested some improvements to our infrastructure (mainly Youth Recruitment + coaching, and a new affiliate club) to continue to focus on developing our own youngsters.