Welcome back to Sofia where after three consecutive league titles, CSKA Sofia will do battle and attempt a fourth championship while furthering their standing in the Champions League.
As we enter Frank’s fifth year in Bulgaria, we’ll also take a look at the leagues we’ve played in so far and I’ll share my thoughts on each of them.
If you need a refresher on what’s happened in the save so far, you can catch up on the series here. If not, read on.
Without a doubt, this has been our toughest challenge to date, but we’re not out yet. All we can do is keep going and try to turn this run around.An extract from the diary of Frank M. Athlete, 24th February 2030
As another new season beckoned, Frank looked to the future in his summer transfers, with a number of youngsters joining as he looked to use up some budget.
In terms of first team recruits, only two are worth a mention. John Martin joined on a free from Liverpool and would bring us enormous strength in defensive midfield, essential for our more conservative approach in Europe, while Czech international Pavel Popisil joins for £7.75M from Slavia Prague and will feature at the heart of central defence this year.
The new campaign kicked off with another Super Cup win, although it took Frank’s men a penalty shootout to overcome Ludogorets. Thankfully, things improved in our opening few league games, taking 15 points from our first five games and only conceding one goal in the process.
It would be another 6 weeks before we recorded another win, with three draws and a disappointing home defeat to CSKA 1948 in our next league games. This downturn in form saw the team slip to 3rd in the table, with Botev Plovdiv and Levski both edging ahead of us.
Frank began to wonder whether he should have moved on from CSKA Sofia before the season had begun. With three consecutive titles under his belt, there was an overwhelming feeling of “what next?” about the club. He had hoped the answer would lie in Europe, where we would start in the Champions League Group D, and after a few near misses in recent years, would hope to qualify from the group this time, despite some tough opponents.
Wolfsburg at home were first, and our defensive tactic couldn’t hold them as they left with all the points and a 1-0 victory. September’s very average performances were joined by an early exit from the Kupa Bulgariya, as second division side Lokomotiv Sofia knocked us out. The board were not happy.
As we headed into October, it was clear something needed to be done to get the side back to winning ways. Consecutive losses only added to our woes, with Inter Milan smashing us 4-1 and then Arda taking all the points in the league four days later.
This would be the last defeat for a while, but points dropped in both Champions League games against CSKA Moscow meant our European adventure was already all but over. We’d go on to lose both of our next group games to leave us flailing at the bottom of the group with a -10 goal difference, and ensure we wouldn’t even have enough about us to drop into the Europa League knockout stages.
With just the domestic league left to contest, things had certainly improved and the side secured five more wins as we ran into the Christmas period. Despite a few wins, we still managed to lose valuable points as we drew to the likes of Lokomotiv Plovdiv, Ludogorets and CSKA 1948, and became firmly rooted to 4th position.
After the winter break, we had two essential fixtures lined up. Levski and Botev Plovdiv were above us in the league and winning against both would help restore us to first place and provide the footing for our title defence. What Frank didn’t anticipate was losing both games, with the latter coming particularly hard as we led with 5 minutes to go and conceded twice late on.
Ten points from twelve in our remaining games was enough to have us in third as we split into the Champions Group. There was a lot of ground to make up as we trailed league leaders Levski by 7 points, but Frank still had belief we could recover.
From ten Champions Group games, Frank only suffered one defeat, with Beroe beating us at home on the last day of the season. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done at this point. Despite an absence of defeats, we also only managed three wins as the Curse of the Draws reached the Bulgarian capital.
With so many points dropped, it won’t come as a surprise to you that our title defence proved laughable. In fact, we were lucky that Botev Plovdiv’s form turned out to be more dire than our own as they slipped to 4th place and finished a full ten points behind us.
In the end, both Ludogorets and Levski were too strong for us and this season would definitely go down as one to forget.
In fact, Frank’s early-season wonderings of whether or not he should move on, resurfaced as the season neared its end and as the final whistle was blown against Beroe, he immediately went to the Board to tender his resignation. He felt he’d taken CSKA Sofia as far as he could and in truth, he probably should have left last season and moved on to a new challenge sooner.
In terms of what’s next, Frank has some ideas on where he’d like to venture to, but having spoken to him, he’d like to reveal those ideas in the next update. Until then…
Part of my interest in doing this Down the Danube series, was the prospect of managing in some leagues that I’d not played in yet during my FM career. As Frank’s time with CSKA Sofia draws to a close, I thought i’d take the chance to write a short review of Romania’s Liga I and Bulgaria’s First League, now that I’ve had the chance to manage there.
In many ways, both leagues are very similar in terms of their structure. Both have 14 sides with everyone playing each other twice, before the league splits into two groups. The top six sides after 26 matches enter the Championship Group while the bottom 8 sides all contest the Relegation Group in the fight for survival.
Each group plays another home and away fixture so the Championship Group play another 10 games while the Relegation Group play 14 more. In both leagues, the team bottom after the Relegation Group games is relegated while 7th place will contest a playoff with whoever placed second in the second division.
Whoever is top after the Championship Group games is declared the winner, while 2nd, 3rd 4th and 5th all claim places in the various European competitions. Finally, the bottom side in the Championship Group will play against the top side of the Relegation Group for one final European place, a worthy prize for those teams scrabbling in mid-table.
The significant difference between the leagues is the points allocation after the league splits. In Romania, teams take half their points from the first stage of the season with them into closing stages, while in Bulgaria, all the teams keep all the points they’ve earnt to date.
This means, if a side has built up a significant points lead before the split, then that gap will be cut in half for Romania’s Championship Group, whereas in Bulgaria the gap would be kept intact.
Both these leagues are certainly at the lower end of the reputation spectrum, meaning the prize money for domestic success is almost non-existent. Most of the money that successful clubs in these divisions earn comes from participating on the European circuit, and unsurprisingly it’s the same teams that are making those appearances each year.
The money they earn from wins and draws in Europe, can then be used to buy more expensive players, which then gives them a better chance of qualifying for Europe next year, and so the cycle repeats.
Despite that challenge, with Farul Constanta I was able to stay in the top division after promotion, and because even the Relegation Group includes a chance of qualifying for Europe, it’s quite plausible that after a few successful seasons domestically, you can start to earn some of that much needed cash.
A decent recruitment network is key to that and at Farul, we had a great one which i think is what helped us to do so well.
Ultimately though it’s hard to build up enough cash reserves that you can compete with clubs in Germany or France. Even with CSKA Sofia repeatedly coming out on top domestically, we were still at their mercy when it came to our players getting poached for a lot less than their true worth. To that end, squad building is essential if you’re going to enjoy long-term success.
Both leagues have 3 or 4 clubs that can realistically compete for domestic honours each year, with another 3 or 4 capable of challenging for the European places.
In Romania, FCSB were certainly the most dominant side in Liga I, but struggled to claim back to back titles as FC Viitorul and Universitatea Craiova shared the honours over the years. The likes of Dinamo Bucaresti and CFR Cluj were also regular features in the top half and were rarely replaced by lesser opposition.
In Bulgaria, Ludogorets dominated the First League for over 10 years in my save, with CSKA Sofia, Botev Plovdiv and Levski all sharing 2nd, 3rd and 4th between them over the years. What I liked most about the league though, was the occasional assault from some of the lower league sides as they attempted to raid the top 4. Dunav and Beroe were effective at this to begin with, with Arda and eventually CSKA 1948 managing to do this very effectively as well.
I can’t recommend these two leagues enough. For me, they have everything that you’d come to want in an FM save, whether you’re looking to take a club from the bottom up, or you want to topple one of the dominant sides and stake a claim as the greatest of all time.
In Romania, it’s very open and there’s a great chance to make your mark with one of the smaller clubs. I’d say the way the points are halved after the preliminary phase of the season will also help your chances here too.
Bulgaria is crying out for someone to usurp Ludogorets, and with plenty of sides that are capable of doing it, there’s a lot of choice for you to pick the club that matches your ambition. I’d also add, i think Bulgaria is the better choice if you harbour ambitions to do well in Europe, particularly because the other top sides in the league will also do well in Europe, which in turn will help the league’s reputation to grow.
In this section I’ve highlighted some of the content I’ve been consuming of late. There are some excellent content creators out there, some old and some new, and the vast majority of which are all on Slack so I strongly advise you join that community and check them out here.
- Best Save Update Blog: The FM blogging scene continues to be stronger than ever with plenty of updates posted to keep us entertained. This week I read up on From Eleven, One‘s adventures in Serbia as he has a big decision to make with FK Mačva Šabac.
- Best Advice Blog/Article: Hard to pick just one this week, since some great content creators have written some excellent pieces along a similar theme of late: tactics! Catch up on FM Samo‘s post on his 4-1-2-3 tactic, Oliver Jensen‘s post on Pep’s 4-3-3 tactic, and FM Rensie‘s post on his 4-1-4-1 DM Wide system.
- Best Audio/Video: The GrassNGear podcast returned this week after Covid-19 forced an entirely unnecessary hiatus. Nonetheless, it’s good to hear the dulcet tones of FM Grasshopper and DGear86 of
BolivaBolton fame again and I suggest you give it a listen if you haven’t already!
And that’s it for another update from me. Thanks so much for reading down this far, I hope you enjoyed it. As ever your feedback is always welcome either here in the comments, on Twitter or on my Slack channel. If you’re not already on Slack then you’re missing out. It’s free to join, there’s no pressure to post anything, and you’ll find there are some excellent people who you can chat to if you want.
I’ll be back as soon as I can with another update from Frank as he continues to take us Down the Danube.