The new Football Manager game may be out in only a short time but that doesn’t mean we can’t fit one more career in on The Long Ball with a revived laptop. The question was where do we head to? The answer, as it turned out, was simple: Croatia and Dinamo Zagreb. So, can we keep this never ending talent factory as the top side in the country?…
It’s been 11 years since anyone other than Dinamo won the league in Croatia. You’d have to look back to the first ever season of the Croatian First League to find Dinamo outside of the top three and, for reference, that was in 1992. Their success has been built on the finest youth system in the country and acquiring the best youth players if they don’t have them. The best Croatian talents tend to find themselves at Dinamo before they move on to bigger and more wealthy European leagues.
Fortunately, for me, Dinamo still have a large number of excellent young players at the club for me to hopefully utilise successfully and a lot (I’m talking 80+) in the second and youth teams. Mixed in to that are a couple of experienced faces such as international centre back Gordon Schildenfeld and Chelsea’s latest fourth choice keeper in real life, Eduardo.
The question is how have I done so far?
My first job was to clear some more funds by shipping out reserve team players who would never be good enough to play for Dinamo. First out the door was striker Filip Skvorc to city rivals NK Zagreb for a tiny fee followed shortly by right back Ivan Boras to Inter Zapresic. Midfielders Marko Grcic and Roko Prsa were released (Prsa would join Skvorc at NK Zagreb) before we lost first choice goalkeeper Eduardo to Ligue 1 side Lorient for a pretty fair £700,000. At 33, he was getting on a bit and, while I hesitated on whether or not I could replace him, I eventually decided that I could find a younger, better alternative.
Filip Mihaljevic continued the fringe player exodus by joining NK Zagreb on a free before Josip Pivaric decided to throw a tantrum because I wouldn’t give him a new contract after rejecting a bid for him. He wasn’t a massively important part of the first team and I have no time for a petulant 26 year old left back so he was sold to Norwegians Rosenborg for a pretty nice £400,000. His departure saw the promotion of 17 year old Borna Sosa to the first team so a win-win situation for me.
As well as the usual smattering of loans, there was the sale of young centre back Filip Benkovic for an initial £60,000. I deliberated this one for a while because Benkovic looks like a decent little player but ultimately I negotiated a deal that was financially sound in the future for us and included a buy back clause should he turn into an outstanding young defender at Stromsgodset. And that was that I thought until the big clubs came out of the woodwork on deadline day. Exciting midfielder Borna Borovec saw bids turned down for him, complained then got his move to Arsenal where that fee could rise beyond half a million pounds with a substantial sell on clause. Our new first choice keeper Antonijo Jezina also departed for Portugal and Braga after complaining he wanted to leave when bids arrived for him. £350,000 was a good fee for him considering he was initially set to be a back up and wasn’t particularly special.
Signing wise, I wasn’t actually particularly desperate for reinforcements anywhere. In fact, I wasn’t actually planning on making as many signings as I have but some sales forced me into a couple and my Head of Youth Development brought in a couple. I also missed out on a couple of signings too earlier than the signing of Danijel Miskic – Colombian keeper Cristian Bonilla opted to join Pumas in Mexico while Montenegrin striker Stanisa Mandic demanded way too much money to join us from Cukaricki and went to Greece instead with Panathinaikos.
Our first signing of the summer was midfielder Josip Spoljaric for an initial £33,500 which could rise to around £100,000 based on appearance related fees. This was the first deal organised by my HoYD and I was actually OK with it. Spoljaric is a decent little midfielder that will sit in the second team (who play in the second tier) and hopefully develop into a tidy little player or, at worst, a sweet little profit.
Following him in the door was another midfielder, the aforementioned Miskic, from Slovenian side Celje for a fairly substantial £450,000. Primarily he’ll be used as cover for the first team with his versatility being a major advantage moving forward (especially with continental competition) but, at 21, he has plenty of room to grow. He was joined by another midfielder, Bosnian Zvonimir Kozulj, from our affiliate Siroki Brijeg for £300,000. His scout report is what sold me on him – a hard working, consistent midfielder with good potential and a good personality. The ideal signing. He’ll spend the season back in Bosnia to get game time.
The second HoYD signing was young defender Vinko Medjimorec from Slaven Belupo for a measly £35,000. Naturally, this is before clauses kick in and whatever else but this was again a signing that I was happy to agree to for another young talented Croatian. He’ll spend the season at First League rivals Osijek to get experience. The final signing on deadline day was experienced Brazilian keeper Rubinho on loan from Juventus. This was an almost panic buy as we needed experience in goal after the departures of Jezina and Eduardo left us with just 17 year old Adrian Semper.
It was s**t.
Not only did we not win a game but we also lost Algerian striker Hilal Soudani for nearly half the season in the process due to injury. Wonerful.
League form has been rather patchy to say the least with frustration the main emotion on tap when we play. We were pretty toothless in the opening day draw with Hadjuk before we lost to ten man Rijeka at home thanks to a set piece goal. We managed to get two wins over the board over Lokomotiva and Osijek thanks mostly to Marko Pjaca (his hat-trick against Lokomotiva was especially wonderful) before two frustrating draws with Istra and Inter Zapresic. We utterly dominated both games but goalscoring has been a massive issue for us with our strikers horribly misfiring.
A late Marko Rog goal gave us the spoils against NK Zagreb before we blew two leads to lost 3-2 at home to Slaven Belupo which left me apoplectic. The best part? The players think they’re playing well.
Thanks to Croatia’s excellent co-efficient, we started our Champions League campaign all the way back in the Second Round of qualifying. Fortunately the draw was kind as we breezed past Icelandic champions Stjarnan 4-1 on aggregate where Angelo Henriquez scored his only goal of the season so far.
Even more fortunately for Dinamo was that the Hungarians Videoton had conspired to lose to Moldovan semi-pro side Milsami in the Second Round meaning that we dodged a bit of a bullet moving forward. A convincing 4-1 win in Moldova sent us through despite a shocking 0-0 at home. Then came the Playoff where we given a tough task against Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg. A tight first leg in Austria saw a late Paulo Miranda own goal give us a massive 1-0 win on the night ahead of what was a massive home game.
The second leg started poorly as Salzburg dominated and led at half time through Omer Damari’s goal.We reset and were back level through Pjaca before Marko Rog stupidly got himself sent off for a poor tackle. From there it was a matter of time as Yordy Reyna and David Ensinger sealed our fate. Thursday nights on Croatia’s Channel Five for Dinamo.
Luckily we were seeded third for the draw which meant we were put into Group B with Athletic Bilbao, Club Brugge and bottom seeds West Ham. Fantastic.
So where do we go from here? Well, it’s hard to tell. I need to find a tactic that gets the best out of all of the ridiculous talent I have at my disposal rather than just some of it. I also need to get my strikers firing and wins in the bag otherwise I could be out of a job soon. I’ll provide an update on tactics and players to watch in the next part which will take us to the end of the transfer window in January where hopefully we might actually be doing well.