Operation: Z-Day v.2 (Episode 19 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

A matter of seconds, a matter of millimetres, a matter of luck.

I rearrange the cushion from under my neck as the sound of pen meeting paper serenades me gently and eases my mind.

“It’s just that they’re scary you know?” I gesture my left arm towards him. He nods understandingly. “Like, we’ve played them three times already right? And even though we didn’t play bad, we just couldn’t beat them. It feels like I’m already fighting a losing battle before it’s begun, like there’s almost no point in us turning up.”

“There’s no need to explain your feelings to me.” The therapist adjusts his rimmed spectacles before continuing. “Your fears aren’t exactly irrational and even if they were, I’d still be here to support you.” His soothing delivery of the final sentence makes me powerless to fight the warm feeling in my stomach.

“Now, close your eyes and just listen to what I say. Don’t talk, just listen.” I oblige as my eyelids bring the first inviting darkness in days. I hear him stand, walk to the other side of the room and press a button which must belong to a stereo as whale songs begin echoing around the room.

“Just relax and go to your happy place.” The Alfonso Lopez, completely empty except for the stubby figure of Rodrigo prodding the ground. It’s a few short moments of pure bliss. The early evening sun beating down on my already sunkissed skin, the distant sounds of a vibrant city settling down for the night. All supported by the calming songs of the majestic whales.

But, the whales start singing differently. A more sinister tune that slowly fades into a mixture of jeering and boos. In less than a blink, I’m now in the middle of the Metropolitano Roberto Melendez, red and white shirts overflowing from the stands and down on to the pitch like a scene from a zombie movie. I make a break for the tunnel only for a steel gate to slam shut as I’m a few feet from safety. I turn to face the mob which has duplicated in both size and noise.

“Perdebor! Perdebor!” The distance between myself and the crowd seems to take forever to close, twisted laughing faces bearing down on me. I collapse against the cold metal, silently begging for mercy as they approach. Right as they are within touching distance, the man’s calm voice booms in my ears.

“Now open your eyes.”

I gasp for air as a laser of sunlight pierces my eyes through the crack in my curtains and makes me squint painfully. I compose myself before clicking the lock button on my phone. 8:38am. I swivel my body to look at the window and debate whether the extra 22 minutes of sleep is needed. Night terror still at the forefront of my mind, I stand up and pull the curtains apart. Today is the day when it changes.

Atletico Junior. My arch-nemesis. The daunting fixture which has only been made more daunting by the fact we’ve lost our top spot to Huila a day before. While we have a game in hand, it’s still not the ideal scenario to be in when playing Atletico Junior. They’re also just one point behind us so losing this game would really knock our chances of a top two finish (which was my unspoken target for the Clasura after emerging from the month of August unbeaten.)

But I’ve realised the wrongs of my ways, the catalysts to our failures against them in our previous encounters: we gave them too much respect. We were happy to sit back, invite the pressure and play into their hand. Not this time. We’re going to be the team attacking, we’re going to be in control. A no survivor mentality is enough to turn over any team and let’s be honest. There’s much better teams than Junior in the world.

In what’s our most important match of the season, Gabby returns from his rest last week to resume captaincy. A big call had to be made regarding Quintero’s fitness and if it was a few months earlier, he’d be immovable. However, he hasn’t lived up to his amazing form from the Apetura so a much more in-form player by the name of Jeferson Torres takes his spot in the midfield. Another hard decision I had to make was about the strikers and who I trusted to lead the line today. After much discussion between myself and Ricky, Neumann and Morison are the strikers with Rangel on bench. That of course means that Romero, our top goalscorer, has been left out of the matchday squad and watches from his home in Bucaramanga. The only easy choice was selecting our best back four to defend Ramos’ goal.

All these players know how much this game means. Not just to the fans or to our title hopes. But to me, to our self belief that we can beat any eleven players put in front of us. As the infamous quote goes:

“I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I’m all out of gum.”

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Our new gameplan and it’s attacking intent is blatant within the first ten minute as the confident, boastful cheers and chants turn into panicked mumbles and whispers. When Gonzalez thumps a Gutierrez cross clear, the signal to strike is telepathic. His headed clearance flies all the way to Neumann who has little in support so he lays it back to Salazar. He spots Morison waiting on the last man’s shoulder and chips a ball high into the air for the Welshman to chase. He battles with Jefferson Gomez, managing to shove his body in front as they approach on the edge of the D. Morison takes a nice touch to set himself before drilling a ball hard and low straight into the bottom right hand corner. I allow a subdued fist bump as Steve shushes the fourty-odd thousand Junior fans before being piled on by his teammates. Your move, Junior.

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The rest of the first half is how a proper derby match should be. Back and forth, you attack we attack. Junior are trying lots of crosses into the box which Gonzalez and Marlon Torres are dealing with nicely while we’re breaking with pace and using Morison as the focus for all out attacks. Both methods are proving fruitless but we have more shots and clearer opportunities than Junior. The only statistic that matters however is the scoreline and we’re currently 1-0 up. I hold back from making any changes as we look more likely to score and double our lead.

As much as I’m usually correct in football, the world likes to give me a kind reminder that I am human and that I can be very, very wrong. Three minutes into the second fourty-five, Piedrahita and Sambueza combine with a 1-2 down the wing. The winger crosses it for Diaz who hits a vicious volley towards goal but Ramos can easily parry as it’s quite central. They do win a corner however which is cleared by Jeferson Torres at the back post as far as Perez. Pico collects the loose ball after Neumann tackles and passes to Diaz. He takes it inbetween Gabby and Cardenas and hits it while the ball is still under his feet. This catches Ramos off guard and he can only scramble to his left as the ball soars into the back of the net. In all fairness, he would have had a tough job saving that with a clear view as it was a really good strike that’s only centimetres from kissing the post on it’s way in. At even stevens, the game will have a much different feel.

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Just after the hour mark, Teofilo Gutierrez plays Sambueza down the right wing. His front post cross deflects off Cufre but Diaz is there to flick a header past Ramos for both his and Junior’s second goal. That fucking demon of a left winger has come back to haunt us again. If I had a spare six or seven million quid, I would have already tried to sign him myself.  I opt for a pacy winger of my own with Asprilla replacing Salazar in a move of retaliation. Fucking bastards.

Ten minutes pass before I decide we need fresher legs. Rovira and Rodriguez come on for Cardenas and Gomez with Operation: Spearhead coming into play for the remainder of the game. Fabio will be deployed as a left winger while the heavy legs of Cardenas will be on the right. If this formation was ever going to save us, it would be right now.

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There’s an instant impact as it looks like we’ve all found our second wind. In the 76th minute, Jeferson Torres and Asprilla exchange a few passes before the substitute hammers a ball down the line for Neumann. Andreas backs into his man and uses a heavy first touch to pace past him before hitting a perfect low cross to the back post which just skims past the outstretched studs of Avila’s boot. In reality, the following event probably took a second or two but in that moment, as I stood on the touchline with my breath held? It was an eternity. Rodriguez arrives at the back post, gently taps the ball with his left foot and wheels away in celebration as the ball slides underneath the keeper’s leg for 2-2. Not to brag but I’m a tactical mastermind. Pep, eat your heart out.

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I was originally planning on returning us to Operation: Diamond once we equalised but I didn’t expect the impact to be so instant. Why change it? I leave the players and their all out mentality to wreak havoc and push for a dramatic late winner. In the 83rd minute,  we win a string of corners in a promising display of commitment. The final corner is a looping one for Marlon Torres to attack from the edge of the box. He connects and puts a postage stamp for the top right corner but Chunga somehow sprawls across his goal to palm it onto the crossbar with a Junior shirt swiftly clearing after.

The third minute of added time. A long ball over from Asprilla is hunted down by Rodriguez in what surely will be the last chance of the game. He takes it down with his chest and maintains his momentum but Chunga is closing in. The silence around the stadium is almost unbearable as everybody watches, hoping their player gets there first. Fabio doesn’t have time to think. He gets there half a second before the onrushing goalie, digs his foot under the ball so it just clears Chunga’s hip. It lands and painstakingly brushes the near post before the ref blows a sharp burst on his whistle.

A matter of seconds, a matter of millimetres, a matter of luck. Even though we haven’t won, we’ve came a long way today. Until we meet again.

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I allow a well deserved day off after the match and Yuber Asprilla is in my office bright and early the following day to thank me for improving his game time. He seems much happier and used some sort of phrase that sounded like ‘barking to a cat’? I think he meant he thought he was talking a different language and it wouldn’t improve but as it has, he’s happy. I understood that’s he’s happy. Man management is the large majority of being a football manager so if you try to keep everybody happy, things can go your way.

The board invited me into a meeting regarding the finances are projections for the clubs financial state by the end of the season. It’s looking positive as the value of the club is expected to rise from £6’100’000 to £7’000’000 over the course of the Clasura with our current value sitting at around £6’600’000. It’s over doubled in value since I joined in January with the pre-Apetura valuation being just shy of £3’100’000. Advancing deeper into the knockout stages and qualifying for the Copa Libertadores would be huge for the club financially and I assure the board we have the same ambition. The owner I’m yet to meet, a Mr. Barato, is very pleased with my management and intends to introduce himself when he returns from his current business trip. Ironically, ‘Barato’ is the Spanish word for ‘cheap’. Well, I hope it’s irony.

There’s a highlight on merchandise sales which provides an interesting insight. We’ve sold about 72’300 shirts from our official store and website with the highest selling jerseys belonging to Cardenas (7), Rangel (9) and Salazar (14). It’s concerning that our top three popular players according to these figures are all loanees but I’m sure that Morison’s number 15 or Gabby’s number 8 aren’t far behind.

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Our next game is against another side that’s reasonably close to us in Deportes Tolima so we desperately need a win to push them further away from the dizzy heights we’re currently at. We beat them 2-1 in the Apetura and I’m confident we can do it again with an even better scoreline.

Now this has taken some time and preparation. People might question why I’m changing a winning formula and my answer to them is flexibility. We play the same formation week in, week out and having the option of variety, the reassuring knowledge that we can throw a curveball to any unsuspecting opponents is integral to becoming a great team.

Ladies and gentlemen, it returns. Operation Z: Day… v.2?

Now this formation hasn’t exactly fared well in the limited time it’s been in play. I’ll be the first to admit it and I doubt I’ll be the last. The issue was that Quintero didn’t work as the anti-winger. We played him on the left hand side, a man right up his arse and he didn’t have the mobility and fluidity as a typical winger. That’s why he’s been dropped back into the middle of the pitch as the anchor. He contributes at both ends, will run his socks off and be the vocal point of our diagonal midfield trio. He definitely could work as a more conventional wide midfielder though in a 4-4-2 or a broader variation of our usual 4-1-2-1-2 which is something I intend to look into at a later date.

In another alteration that hopes to assist Z-Day v.2 in trumping it’s predecessor, the diagonal midfield has been mirrored. The holding midfielder option will now be on the left with the attacking midfielder supporting our right winger closely. This also means the formation forms a Z shape instead of a jagged S which totally isn’t the main reason for this extremely well thought out and tactical change.*

The personnel is relatively standard as our best back four starts. As I mentioned, Quintero is sandwiched in the middle of the pitch between Gomez and Salazar. Cardenas gets his first start as a winger on the left with Nunez coming in on the right . They’re tasked with feeding Rangel as the lone striker. This is going to work this time. I can feel it.

*Shoutout to Reddit user /u/TwistingtheShadows for pointing this out to me.

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This first half is one of the more frustrating halves of football I’ve had to endure. Our midfield and back line are constantly halting their attacks before they reach our  final third and even though we’re relentlessly trying to fashion clear cut chances, we can’t get a long enough glimpse at goal. We’re passing it around well and retaining possession successfully but there’s just no final product.

The best chance comes towards the end of the half when Nunez flicks a ball round his man with his instep, almost like a reverse Bergkamp spin. He darts into the box and squares for Salazar but his shot is brilliantly blocked by Payares. At the break, I try my best to hide the pain behind a wincing smile and make a change. Neumann replaces Quintero with Salazar pushing back into the middle as we need some raw, attacking spark to get us going. And if Andreas Neumann isn’t a raw, attacking spark, I don’t know who is.

It takes ten minutes for a chance to arise when Nunez steals the ball on the half way line and switches to Cardenas. Sherman holds it up until Nunez has completed curving his run and plays Maxi in. Some tight footwork helps him jimmy round a couple Tolima defenders but the shot is a poor one that’s directly at the goalkeeper. In the 63rd minute, Gabby knocks an outrageous 60 yard ping over for our nippy Argentine to chase. Before I can finish admiring our captains pass, Nunez cuts inside with his first touch and plays a reverse ball to set Neumann up to shoot but the keeper spreads himself well and blocks the shot with his forearm.

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In the 69th minute, Romero and Jaimes come on for Salazar and Nunez with Neumann moving out to the right wing so Romero can play behind Rangel. The final chance falls Bucaramanga’s way in added time. A great bit of passing play climaxes in Rangel feeding the overlapping Cardenas but typically, Montero denies him with a top draw reflex save with his left hand. As a result, the result of the game is a goalless draw. It’s been a pretty boring game but our performance wasn’t exactly bad. Then again, it wasn’t exactly good and we didn’t score. Operation: Z-Day v.2 had a much better maiden flight than v.1 and I truly believe this set-up is a great second option if we feel like switching things up. For a wide formation though, we seem to lack the creativity we usually have in abundance when playing in our diamond. It says a lot when the Man of the Match was Cufre who was given a 7.5 by the TV pundits.

One word to sum up this game? Forgettable.

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One thing that is far from forgettable is our position over halfway into the Clasura. We’re comfortably up the top end of the table with 25 points out of a possible 36. We’re also 5 points away from dropping out of the top eight before our game against Millonarios who are shockingly not in the top eight this far into the season. Does this mean they’ll be desperate for a win? Yes.

Does it mean we’re going to give them one? Absolutely fucking not.

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