It’s been a few months since finishing 3rd in the 2019 Copa América finals with Chile, Ángel Bastardo is at the crossroads in his professional career. Three seasons in La Plata with Estudiantes have gone by in a flash and now a void engulfs him. Bastardo is descending into a black hole…threatened to be forgotten whilst unemployed…only remembered by the true zealots of anti-fútbol. But even their numbers are dwindling, drowned out by the chorus for inverted fullbacks, strikerless formations and tiki-taka. The kind of bullshit that hurts Bastardo to the core.
But he’s not ready to return yet. Bastardo needs to add ‘some strings to his bow’, improving the things that complement his brutal outlook on football. Can he add a sprinkle of attacking flair to his tactics? Can he better his financial management? Can he improve his work on the training ground? Join Ángel Bastardo in his latest series: ‘A.Bastardo On Holiday’…
Chapter I: "When Bastardo met Mendoza"
Argentina celebrated winning the 1957 Copa América in style, 20 of their 25 tournament goals coming from the flair and artistry of three strikers: Humberto Maschio, Antonio Angelillo & Omar Sívori. A year later all three had swapped allegiance to Italy, customary at the time for those wanting to play in Europe, meaning that Argentina took a weakened side to World Cup 1958. They crashed out against Czechoslovakia 6-1, Argentina’s biggest ever loss to date. The philosophy and style towards football in Argentina drastically turned into pragmatism after this defeat. Culminating in Osvaldo Zubeldia's Estudiantes side, who won three straight Copa Libertadores titles (1968, 1969 & 1970)...fighting their way to success as well as playing.
Since that infamous loss in 1958 and the pragmatism that followed, Argentina has been in constant argument with itself as to how football should be played. Does it follow suit and play like the more defensively conscious European nations or revert back to the romanticism of old? This Estudiantes team as discussed in my Fame & Fibra introductory posts were the motivation for Ángel Bastardo’s anti-fútbol and the direction I wanted to take in FM17, emboldened by the concept of ‘fibra’. But over in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates my Argentine compatriot Diego Mendoza is working wonders with Al Wahda FC, developing an exciting brand of attacking football with domestic success. Visiting Diego and appreciating the other side of Argentine football, with playmakers included, might just be what Bastardo needs to reach the next level of management stardom.
This is ‘When Bastardo met Mendoza’…
The Journey: Buenos Aires to Abu Dhabi (via São Paulo)
The Qatar Airways flight to Abu Dhabi was extremely long and arduous. 20 hours in total, which included a 6 hour stopover at São Paulo. Yes, São Paulo again. The city where Bastardo’s Chilean Copa Américaadventure ended, beating Ecuador 2-1 to claim 3rd place. Highlights of the Argentina-Mexico final played in the airport waiting lounge, as if this whole trip to see Mendoza was God’s way of trolling Bastardo. It should have been Argentina – Chile, everyone knew it. A few men at the airport bar were discussing Mexico’s lucky path to the final, with no knowledge that Bastardo was standing adjacent to them ordering a 330ml Brahma prior to the flight. Down this and another few on the flight and it would all be over, Bastardo reassured himself.
Almost a whole day had passed and Bastardo had finally arrived in Abu Dhabi International Airport. Surprisingly, the journey alongside the palm tree lined streets to Abu Dhabi’s main bus terminal was only 30 mins. There was time to kill as it was now only a short walk to the Al-Wahda’s Al Nahyan Stadium. Mendoza was hosting Bastardo in the training complex, directly next to the stadium. He’d been offered the best conditions the City had to offer: 5* room and service and full access to the club’s suite of sport and leisure facilities. It was rumoured that Diego never did things half measure here in Abu Dhabi, it was starting to show.
After a soirée of red wine (Argentinian Malbec of course) and Mendoza’s famous home made triple cooked chips & imported Argentinian buffalo steak, it was time to test out Bastardo’s bed chamber in anticipation for tomorrow’s big game: Al Wahda FC vs Baniyas Club. Again Mendoza had gone to town, a TV package included pretty much every football league and an Al Wahda kit with ‘La Fibra’ No.9 was left on the bed, nice touch. Despite the differing footballing philosophies, there had always been mutual respect between them. The fibra shirt is an example of that.
The Match: Al Wahda FC vs Baniyas Club
Bastardo was told that the breezy conditions would make for a cooler than usual 1500 kick off, that was bullshit. It was 34 degrees, but the dryness of the air was nothing like South America. Bastardo could literally cough up cork screws as the wind brought a coarse feeling to his throat...which possibly contained sand. Bastardo was accompanied in the stands by Javier Saviola, one of Mendoza’s Argentine imports brought in to manage the U19 team. They were joined by Gabriel Calderón, Baniyas Club’s ex-manager from 2012… another fellow Argentine. Gabriel was a prolific midfield goalscorer in France’s Ligue Un during the late 1980s and early 90s, scoring 53 league goals for PSG and Caen in 178 league appearances. He was also here under Mendoza’s invitation. It was clear Mendoza liked to be surrounded by his compatriots.
The match itself was for the Gulf League, Mendoza had won the previous 2 league titles and was going for the hat-trick. Baniyas were a dangerous opposition, who could draw on Dutch International Royston Drenthe and Target Man Joaquín Larrivey. Argentine Larrivey had always been a target for Bastardo during his Estudiantes days. Larrivey has exceptional strength and was a perfect fit within his fibra model. Discussions occurred between Baniyas, Larrivey and Estudiantes back in 2017…but they were miles apart in terms of transfer fees & wages. The UAE can offer vast sums of money you see, which is why Mendoza can afford the exceptional talent of Daniel Villalva…you guessed it another Argentine.
Now onto the match itself, according to the distributed teamsheet Al Wahda FC lined up as a 4123 wide and it was of interest to see how the attacking three of Villalva – Tagliabue – Dzsudzsák played out on the pitch. Bastardo knew all three were keen to play centrally.
It was clear from the start that both Villalva and Dzsudzsák had been instructed to move infield at every opportunity. This would play out well, with opposing Baniyas fullbacks Majed Ahmed and Vouria Ghafouri having to follow their runs thus creating space for opposing Al Wahda fullbacks to exploit as shown below. This happened time and time again, the space created is shown in yellow below. Mendoza’s attackers are distinctly narrow in advanced positions luring the opposition to do the same via man marking, yet Mendoza’s full backs advance into the space which Villalva and Dzsudzsák vacate.
On 11 minutes, Dzsudzsák’s narrow positioning was rewarded after being put through by fullback Mohammed Salem. 1-0 Al Wahda.
Just before the half hour mark, Mendoza swapped the positions of Villalva and Dzsudzsák…perhaps to now have their dominant feet out wide for conventional wing play? Yet both were still cutting in, Bastardo would have to question Mendoza on this move post match. However the decision was vindicated as on 42 mins when Villalva (now on the right flank) carried the ball well, taking Baniyas left full back and central midfielder out of the game, allowing Osvaldo Martínez the time and space to thread a nice ball into Tagliabue. 2-0 just before half time.
At the break Baniyas made two changes, with Imad Khalili coming on upfront…forcing Larrivey to move slightly wider. It was a strange move, which did not play to Larrivey’s strengths. He was now expected to make more frequent sprints to run onto the ball. Bastardo was perplexed, if one has a target man…one must use him in that way he thought.
Within two minutes of restarting the match, Mendoza’s boys were 3-0 up. Dzsudzsák with a fine strike from the edge of the area. There’s no need for a GIF here, it’s sheer individual brilliance from the Hungarian.
The fourth goal coming only a minute later however was a goal to rival any Ángel Bastardo counter attack. From a Baniyas corner, Villalva was able to grab hold of the ball and move it towards Dzsudzsák on the half way line. Their dribbling skills are easy to see here, they are able to hold off Baniyas pressure before Martínez slides in Villalva. It was 4-0 and Baniyas were finished. Here it is in glorious 3D:
The passing graphic above shows the story. Mendoza’s team break forward quickly with Dzsudzsák and Villalva able to showcase their dribbling and quickness to great effect. Another topic of conversation for the Bastardo-Mendoza evening discussion.
The fifth and final goal of the evening came on 78 mins, Villalva again with the finish. This goal demonstrates the Mendoza Risk Vs Reward strategy. It was a final attacking move, but had an element of risk if the move had broke down. “He who dares wins” right…
It’s the nature of football to take risks & work the space and it’s commendable to take such a stance at 4-0 up. But against stronger opposition, perhaps in the Asian Champions League, Mendoza ought to be mindful about the consequence of the above move breaking down. Taking Baniyas’ poor positioning aside, Al Wahda are vulnerable at the back…as both central midfielders have moved forward. In fact, seven of Mendoza’s ten outfield players had the taste for a goal, admirable but so alien to Bastardo…another conversation point.
It ended 5-0, Mendoza’s team were rampant with Bastardo mesmerised by the attacking flair shown from Al Wahda FC. The Al Nahyan Stadium crowd had been thoroughly spoilt.
The Interview: Bastardo & Mendoza
Bastardo made his way to the executive box to meet Diego Mendoza, who had finally completed all of his pleasantries with Baniyas staff and today’s match officials. Mendoza did the sensible thing and poured two glasses of that vintage Malbec. In one clean sweep Bastardo took the glass and downed it in one…no more delaying, Bastardo thought, it was now time for a Bastardo-Mendoza Q&A…
Bastardo kicked off…
AB: Diego, thanks for having me here and congratulations on the 5-0 win, very convincing indeed. What are the overarching match day philosophies at Al Wahda FC?
DM: It's pretty simple really…score more goals than them :-) No in all seriousness, my plan is to play the game on our terms. I'm not one for tinkering, I like to have a general plan and stick to it. I want us to work hard to get the ball, keep it and not give it back. I expect 150% from ALL of my players for the full 90 minutes, regardless of who we are playing and in what competition. I can sometimes come across as a bit of a bastard in the dressing room but it's for the hombres own good.
AB: I think this is the South American energy in us, give your life on the pitch etc. How have the Emirati players coped with your demands?
DM: They took a while to get used to my methods but when they saw what they could achieve when the listened to me they quickly toed the line. A few of them push their luck at times but a time out on the naughty step at half time gets them back in line.
I'm also not one of these people whose happy to settle for the whole "a win's a win" bollocks. That kind of attitude is what turns a 1-0 win into a draw or loss. I want my team to always be playing better than they did in their last game and if we're better than the opposition on paper I expect them to show me that.
AB: This was pretty demonstrative of your approach at 4-0 up. Your boys were relentless for that 5th goal. Do you ever curtail your enthusiasm and ‘shut up shop’?
DM: It depends on the opposition and the way the game is going. If I am 1-0 up with a 10 minutes to go it's time to tell the lads to sit a little narrower, keep the ball and be more disciplined. When I first moved to Abu Dhabi we were too often guilty of switching off for the last 10 minutes and turning 3 points into 1 or 0 points.
It's about balance though because a lot of our success is based on controlling the game and ultimately when you shut up shop you are handing the initiative back to the opposition. It's just about being sensible with how we use the ball and managing our energy at a point where fatigue is starting to set in and mistakes are inevitably going to happen.
AB: Yes, it's good to see (from a Bastardo viewpoint) conservatism at 1-0 or similar fragile scorelines. A love of mine is 'Retaining Possession', lowering the tempo and ‘sticking to positions’. I've even been known to 'Waste Time'. I love this aspect of bastard football.
DM: Ah you see I’m very much of the opposite mentality, I want to retain possession but also raise the tempo as I don't want player slowing down and get caught in possession. Each to their own but I’m quite partial to dropping to defensive mentality but raising tempo and making the team more disciplined. Need to keep them thinking sharp.
AB: Interesting, I think it partly depends on the technical ball playing qualities held in your team. My fibra infused bastards in La Plata were not the best footballers (despite being mentally strong)...I found higher tempo more susceptible in seeing them rush it a bit too much...at points in the game where it's sensible to conserve and time waste a bit more. Sometimes my game is based on a higher than normal tempo where I think I have the opposition for the taking. But there are times, like at 1-0 up with minutes to go, where I simply want anti-fútbol and I am not looking to risk possession by being quick about things!
<INTERLUDE: 2nd glass of wine>
AB: Ok moving on today’s match: the Al Wahda FC front three, despite appearing wide, are very advanced, narrow and horizontal…what is the reasoning behind this? Does it vary from game to game?
DM: Well we don't have a lot of height in the middle and you'll not catch me playing any of this 4-4-2 nonsense :-)
Many of the teams we play against sit deep, it’s often a pointless exercise in getting crosses into the box. What we look to do instead is to keep the ball moving and to constantly be probing the opposition defence, just waiting for them to have a lapse of concentration and for us to be able to strike. When we are in a position to strike, I need to make sure there are options for my players to use and thus heighten the possibility of creating a genuine chance.
AB: We both know this is also a common problem, not just in Argentina but also throughout South America. Do you think your past experiences there came in handy for your role here in the UAE?
DM: A lot of my time in Caracas was spent trying to unlock stubborn defences and I guess the UAE is no different, now that we've established ourselves as one of the best teams in Asia. As great as it is teams fearing us is, it is also comes with its challenges. Ultimately a weaker army is far easier to beat in open battle than behind castle walls. It is very rare that you are lucky enough to catch a weaker foe in the open and thus have to be prepared to mount a siege. I just have to keep telling myself to remain calm, despite that not coming easy, and think of clever ways to penetrate those castle walls. Aimless shots from distance are not the answer! :)
AB: Castle walls, sieges…ok.
<INTERLUDE: 3rd glass of wine>
AB: At around 30 minutes into the match, you took the decision to swap the AMR/AML positions: Dzsudzsák going onto the left flank and Villalva onto the right. Why? Did it have the effect you wanted?
DM: This is all about keeping the opposition guessing and varying the way we attack. A lot of teams like to setup and man mark our two most dangerous players, pushing them inside and often trying to force the player onto his weaker foot. By switching sides the opposition fullback is constantly coming up a different player so is not able to settle and thus keep my attacker in their proverbial pocket.
AB: So by making these switches, can we assume then that Dzsudzsák & Villalva are undoubtedly the MVPs of the team? Are the tactics and tactical switches often based around them?
DM: No one player is bigger than Mendoza's team. However, given the gulf in ability between those two and rest of the team it is all about the others supporting Balazs and Danny. This can be achieved by trying to keep things simple in our build-up play OR drawing players away and creating space for them to work in. Then in theory it should be then all about giving the ball to the MVPs to work their magic.
AB: Have any Emirati stepped up and pushed on by trying to reach the level of Dzsudzsák & Villalva?
DM: In practise some of the UAE players have shone in their own right and certainly the likes of Khalid Bawazir, Hamdan Al-Kamali and Mohammed Al-Akbari have all proved themselves to be just as important to the team as the MVPs.
<INTERLUDE: Bastardo gulps from the remainder of the bottle. It’s now dry>
AB: Are Al Wahda FC always attacking? Do you have a plan when the opposing club has an effective counter? (Admittedly Baniyas were truly awful today)
DM: We actually play on a counter mentality with the idea that when we don't have the ball as soon as we have it back we're looking to get forward quickly. When we do have the ball for sustained periods of time we look to move it around and tire the opposition out.
<INTERLUDE: Starting to struggle with the dizziness caused by Mendoza’s Argentinian Malbec, Bastardo summons all his energy and soberness for one final question>
AB: What are your plans tactically for the future? Players like Dzsudzsák & Tagliabue will inevitably retire – will you try to recruit the same type of player…or tweak things further?
DM: Well as a little spoiler, we've actually managed to secure the signature of Ángel Correa from Atlético Madrid. Ángel is a huge signing for the club and real statement of my intentions to make this the best club in Asia and compete with the big boys in Europe. Ángel’s best position is AMC which I don't currently use and as such I'm already thinking of changes to accommodate him in the side next year. Our philosophy will never change, just maybe a few tweaks here and there as this football club evolves. I'm really excited for what the future holds here in Abu Dhabi and can't wait for some of the younger Emirati lads to grow into footballers that can more than hold their own alongside their South American team mates.
It's just a shame that I can't have this impact across the whole country but sadly the short sited Emirati FA didn't quite realise how good they had it with me as their National team manager. That story is for another day though :-)
AB: Indeed it is. Well Señor Mendoza, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I think this whole trip has been enlightening and totally worthwhile for Bastardo. I’m sure we will all be watching the Gulf League with great interest over the coming months/years.
DM: You can be my wingman anytime, Señor Bastardo.
Just like that, both legends of the game retired to their bed chambers…today’s 5-0, the evening discussion and the wine had left its toll. Sleep beckoned…
For the rest of his stay, Bastardo would sit and watch the sun descend on the Arabian horizon each night...discussing all things football with Mendoza over a bottle of red. After each discussion, Bastardo finished with a recap of world football from the TV package supplied in his guest room. One particular team, headed up by an Englishman abroad, grabbed his attention one night. A team from Okinawa Island (Japan) were upsetting the established order through shrewd financial management. Bastardo decided that he needed to head further east and see this fairy tale at firsthand. It was time for Bastardo to cancel his return to South America and instead head to The Land Of The Rising Sun...