Reality check and 3 hard truths for Olympiacos
After victories against West Ham and OFI away, Olympiacos came into the PAOK fixture on a massive high. A wave of euphoria had gripped the fan base of late:
- The win against West Ham was our first win at home in Europe since 25th November 2021, a 1-0 victory against Fenerbahce (last-minute goal from Tiquinho)
- The manner in which we made light work of OFI 2-0 away from home without arguably our best players this season – Fortounis & Rodinei – was also a reason for heightened optimism
Last season’s disaster looked to be well and truly behind us. Alas, reality came crashing down last night as PAOK ran away 4-2 victors in front of a sell-out crowd at the Karaiskaki Stadium. The PAOK game feels like more than just a bump in the road or a slap in the face. It feels like a blow in a boxing match, one that leaves the fighter dizzy and open to a knock-out punch. Indeed, looking at Diego Martinez on the touch line last night, his choices make you wonder whether he was the one suffering from dizziness…
Some called last night’s match “a disaster”. Others called it a “dark night in Olympiacos history”. I call it a reality check. Or simply a reminder that there is no such thing as quick fix; that money & summer transfer windows can’t solve all your problems and ultimately, that rebuilding a team is a process.
Does the heavy defeat at home against PAOK make us an awful team? No, it doesn’t. The same way the West Ham victory didn’t make us a force to be reckoned with all of a sudden.
In the short term, many might look at this result as a turning point in the season, especially with the fate of the Olympiacos-PAO game hanging in the balance. A court decision on Olympiacos’s appeal against a -1 point deduction and a PAO win on paper was expected prior to the PAOK game but got postponed. A decision is now expected throughout the course of this week.
Whatever the outcome of the court decision and whatever happens behind the scenes and off-the-pitch, the team must focus only on what it can control: the performances on-the-pitch.
It’s a long season ahead and while some don’t want to admit it, the league has become more competitive. For the first time since their inception, the Greek Superleague Playoffs were meaningful last season and played a role in determining who was crowned Champion. Being 10-points ahead of the pack in January and mathematically winning the league two games into the playoffs may have been the norm in the not to distant past for Olympiacos but it is far from normal or desirable. To get the best out of a team, competition must be welcome. It’s true in the business world. It’s true in sports. Competition makes you better!
So, it's a four-horse race in Greece this season and Olympiacos will compete with PAO, AEK and PAOK for top spot. There will be bumps in the road along the way, for all teams.
There’s no reason to panic after last nights defeat but Diego Martinez has to pick himself and his team back up. Yes, its true that IF Podence had put away his chance on 22 minutes and IF Paschalakis had done better with the first goal we conceded, we could be talking about an entirely different match but this is football and the club needs to start facing up to some hard truths that can inform the clubs strategy and process moving forward.
Hard truth #1 – centre back issue unlikely to be solved this season
All summer, we looked for a player that would become the “leader” at the back. In today’s team, the leader is Retsos. Before summer training camp, if anyone would have tried to convince an Olympiacos fan that Retsos would be our defensive leader, that person would have been laughed at and ridiculed. Retsos’s rejuvenated performances this season are wonderful to see – both for the player whom we’ve come to adore as an academy product and for the club in terms of a potential future sale - but we have failed to solidify a centre back pairing at the back and there’s a saying in football: “all good teams are built from the back.”
The last time we brought in a “leader” for the defensive line it was Ruben Semedo, for a fee of €4.5m. This season, while we paid significant transfer fees for a new left back (Ortega) and new centre mid (Hezze) we didn’t splash the cash for quality at centre back … and it’s been a constant thorn in the side this season with individual errors from our centre backs characteristically costing us dearly in key matches this season.
Nicolas Freire’s last appearance for Olympiacos came against PAS Giannina on 1st October where he came off with muscle problems at half time. Freire was brought in on a loan plus option deal from Mexican side Pumas this summer. There’s no information yet on his return but are we certain he would be the one to line up next to Retsos when he is fit? I’m not so sure.
In his first full season with Olympiacos’s first team, Andreas Doj has failed to capitalise on the opportunity to solidify his place at centre back. The truth is Doj is not a natural centre back and during pre-season, he was used mainly as a rotation option in defensive midfield: something we have not seen at all in official matches. Can Doj become more consistent with more consecutive game time at centre back? I don’t think so.
Jackson Porozo is a 23-year-old inexperienced centre back coming from a team that was relegated from France’s Ligue 1. He’s clearly an interesting prospect with excellent physical attributes. With patience and an experienced centre back next to him, he could develop into a good centre back. It would be wrong to crucify him for the performance against PAOK where he’s given up a penalty and been exposed by PAOK’s attackers. The question mark here is: sustainability in the long term. Is Jackson Porozo going to solve our problems at the back with a view to next season as well? With this player being on loan via City Group and Premier League teams rumoured to be watching him, I personally doubt he will be here next season.
So, can Giulian Biancone provide a solution at the back? …
The natural instinct at Olympiacos will be to try and sign a centre back in January, at all costs. It’s the “at all costs” and “we must” mentality that I disagree with. What we “must do” is find the right player and stop experimenting. A Boateng type signing (player that has been rumoured and written about) is not necessarily the answer. It’s very hard to find the type of player we want in the European market during the January transfer window. January windows are normally useful for finding band aid players that can provide a short-term solution. On rare occasions you pick up gems like Masouras or Rodinei. Gems are also few and far between in the Superleague nowadays but Olympiacos has opened up a good line of communication with agents in South America. With domestic leagues and player contracts ending in December, don’t be surprised if Antonio Cordon turns to South America again as we continue the search for the “leader” at the back.
Until, that time comes, "pray for Retsos" to stay fit and healthy! AND hope that Mady Camara and Santiago Hezze can continue to bring the pressure and intensity from the midfield. Because after all, defending is not just about our backline - more on that in a future blog!
Hard truth #2 – Oleg Reabciuk harder to replace than we originally thought
Greek football regulations allow a maximum of five foreign players to be listed in a matchday squad. With Rodinei returning to action against PAOK and Porozo starting together with other regulars Hezze and Camara, that meant that either Ortega or El Kaabi would have to be sacrificed for the PAOK game.
Inevitably, we all knew Ortega would pay the price and that Quini would start the game in his place. Ortega begun to show signs of his quality most recently with his performances against West Ham and OFI and he was sorely missed against PAOK.
Quini was brought in as an experienced and versatile player that could help at both right back (mainly) and left back, as a rotation or back-up option. He should not be starting in the big derbies, especially as a left back. With Quini on the pitch, Olympiacos lose their shape and balance. We become very one sided in terms of our attack (more down the right with Rodinei) and opponent coaches target our left side knowing that Quini is not the fastest and Fortounis is also not known for tracking back (sidenote: significant improvement from him in this aspect but still…). It was easy to see going into the game against PAOK that Zivkovic would play a key role and that Quini was in for a tough night.
This summer, Olympiacos also brought in Omar Richards on loan from Nottingham Forest. Richards is yet to feature since his arrival yet he is included in Olympiacos UEFA list. What are the chances that we see Omar Richards in red and white this season? Minimal to none in my view. We are more likely to see Doron Leidner get opportunities in the second half of the season and I would much prefer that, given he’s a player we’ve invested in (NB. Leidner is recovering from an ACL injury and is expected back in full training in December).
Hard truth #3 – Diego Martinez is still figuring out the squad
We’re coming up to mid-November and Diego Martinez is still figuring out the squad as well as his go-to starting 11. Against West Ham, for the first time Martinez changed his preferred 4-2-2-2 formation to play with a 3-man midfield. It worked wonderfully well on the night; a key difference being the presence of Ortega in the place of Quini. It worked so well against the Premier League side that Martinez decided to employ the same tactical approach against PAOK.
In hindsight, the decision to switch from the usual 4-2-2-2 formation against PAOK was ill-informed, particularly knowing that Ortega would not start the match and the reasons explained previously. Besides Ortega’s absence, it meant that a relatively inexperienced player like Alexandropoulos got the nod over a player like Masouras. Masouras continues to get criticism from Greek fans just like all Greek players do. But in this type of game, at home in the Greek league, you expect Olympiacos to come out on the front foot, press the opposition and attack. Masouras contributes to that and the numbers speak louder than words. Masouras has 16 appearances this season, 6 goals and 1 assist.
By comparison, the other players competing for positions behind the striker, Ola Solbakken and Gustavo Scarpa both have zero goal contributions since joining on loan from Roma and Nottingham Forest respectively. Martinez has seemed desperate to find ways to integrate both into the side with both failing to impress until now. Questions marks are being raised about Martinez’s ability to handle so many “big names” and “egos” in the squad. Meanwhile, Martinez’s decision to bring Solbakken on at left back against PAOK raised eyebrows to say the least. Even more so when you think that Mario Vrousai was on the bench and whenever he’s been called upon to fill in as a wing-back this season, he’s done well. Vrousai’s last appearance for Olympiacos was against FK Cukaricki on 31st August.
Martinez’s confusion is evident when you look at the plethora of players that have been used behind the striker. It is at least becoming clear that Fortounis and Podence are the primary options behind the striker but what comes after is… the confusion. Judging from the PAOK game, Pep Biel, last summers €6m signing is now 6th choice behind loanee players who are not certain to stay in the long run. Ivan Brnic is also a name that’s brought up often by Olympiacos fans. He’s young and relatively inexperienced but in the short cameos he made since joining, he showed more promise than both Solbakken and Scarpa. And most importantly, he is a permanent signing and an investment by our club.
Beyond the end of this season, Martinez, Antonio Cordon and club management have more tough choices to make when it comes to recruitment, personnel (expiring contracts, loan options) and putting together a squad that strikes a right balance between star players, rotation players, back-up players and prospects. The defeat to PAOK hurts but at least it came early on in the season and not in a game that mattered as much as e.g., Genk away - where luck was on our side. Against PAOK Olympiacos squad frailties got exposed but it’s far from the end of the line. The rebuild continues. And there’s a long road ahead. Failure can be the greatest teacher as long as the student is willing to accept that it was a failure, learn from it and evolve. Diego Martinez and the team need to work hard on the training pitch to make sure Olympiacos bounce back and continue to compete at a high level. As Martinez said in his press conference after the match, we have to use this energy in a positive way.
Next up it’s West Ham with close to 4,000 fans travelling to support the team. We will be there as well.
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