FCV Farul Constanța: Gheorghe Hagi’s budding force to be reckoned with on the verge of glory – tactical analysis
When you think of Romanian football, you think of Gheorghe Hagi, undoubtedly the greatest player to ever come out of the country.
Hagi enjoyed plenty of success for Steaua București in the late ‘80s, including a second-place European Cup finish in 1988/89. Following that, he became one of the very few players to star on both sides of La Liga’s El Clásico, spending a couple of seasons with both Real Madrid (1990/91-1991/92) and Barcelona (1992/93-1993/94) — with another couple of season’s with Italian side Brescia in between — winning just a Supercopa de España (1990 and 1994) with both Spanish giants.
Hagi successfully finished his playing career with Galatasaray, enjoying plenty of success with the Turkish goliaths including a UEFA Cup win (1999/00) before hanging up the boots in 2001.
Everything started out for Hagi at FC Constanța — a direct predecessor of the club he currently owns and manages, FCV Farul Constanța.
‘Marinarii’ or ‘The Sailors’ are on course to win the Romanian Superliga title this term. This league title victory would go down as their first since a merger between the Hagi-founded Viitorul Constanța and FC Farul Constanța. The latter had just been through some turbulent years following some financial mismanagement which lead to Hagi’s boyhood club going bust and being rebuilt from the ground up in a supporter-led project.
It’s been less than a decade since the historic FC Farul Constanța declared bankruptcy, and it’s been just 14 years since Hagi initially established Viitorul Constanța. Their rollercoaster could have reached new heights by the end of this season, though, should Hagi finish the job and deliver a league title to the club he had grown up playing for and is now responsible for in every sense of the word, as both owner and manager.
This article will detail all things concerning the team from Romania’s fourth-largest city. We’ll provide a look at Hagi’s broader vision for the club, some key players in 2022/23 and, of course, provide some tactical analysis of Hagi’s approach this season, looking at The Sailors’ strategy and tactics.
Hagi’s broader vision
We’ll kick off the analysis with a section looking at Hagi’s broader vision for the club — what are some of the key characteristics that define this project with FCV Farul Constanța?
Immediately on looking at trends relating to the Romanian top flight over the last decade or so, we can see that Hagi’s team, be it FCV Farul Constanța now or Viitorul Constanța in the past, tends to be one of the youngest in the league.
As a matter of fact, Wyscout’s average age data goes back to the 2015/16 season and Hagi’s club has been the youngest in the league in five out of the eight seasons within that time span, including this season where they have an average age of 24.7.
In only one of those seasons, 2021/22, has Hagi’s team has been out of the top two youngest in the league, on average, for that season.
Per a CIES Football Observatory report from January of this year, Farul Constanța rank 36th out of all clubs in their top 27 European first divisions for percentage of minutes played by club-trained footballers this season (31.1%). This is the most of any Romanian club.
It’s evident that the utilisation of youth is a key aspect of this club and this ties in with the top reputation of The Sailors’ youth academy — Academia Hagi.
Founded in 2009 along with his club at a reported cost of €11m, Academia Hagi is said to be one of the biggest and most well-equipped academy complexes in all of southeastern Europe — let alone Romania.
Empoli’s Răzvan Marin, Galatasaray’s Alexandru Cicâldău, Standard Liège’s Denis Drăguș and, of course, Rangers’ Ianis Hagi are just a few who have come through Academia Hagi before being sold by their club for millions.
In addition to the academy products’ sales providing a healthy cash flow for the club, the academy’s quality provides a neverending pipeline of top talent for the club to enjoy, meaning they haven’t needed to break the bank to compete at the top of their division.
In fact, not only do The Sailors have the healthiest transfer fee balance (transfer income minus transfer expenditure) in Romania’s top flight for 2022/23 (€3.65m) but Hagi’s club (FCV Farul Constanța for the last couple of seasons and Viitorul Constanța in the preceding campaigns) have got the healthiest transfer fee balance of any Romanian top flight club when counting every season from 2012/13 (when Viitorul made their first top-flight appearance) to 2022/23 — a balance of €42.87m.
In those same 10 years, they’ve spent €3.01m — less than four other teams (Astra Giurgiu, Universitatea Craiova, CFR Cluj and FCSB). Their income vastly exceeds every side but FCSB, with FCSB also spending a lot more money than The Sailors, hence why their overall balance is lower.
Hagi has created a nice harmony between his elite academy and his top-flight football club. On one hand, he’s created a clear pathway for promising academy talents to get into the Romanian Superliga, showcase themselves and continue developing at the necessary level before, perhaps, moving on to another team. At the same time, he’s created an invaluable resource for his club to lean on and constantly have exciting, fresh talent ready to come through the doors.
With Hagi both owning the club, being the founder of the academy and managing the first team, he is fully aware of everything that’s going on in the whole system. He’s familiar with academy players coming through and will have ideas about how to best utilise them, and while there’s obviously an incentive for him to cash in on promising talents when the time is right as the owner of the business, there’s also an incentive for him as the manager to ensure the squad remains competitive at the Superliga level.
FCV Farul Constanța have done very well at striking this balance of late, hence why we see such attractive numbers on both the balance sheet and the league table.
This setup with Academia Hagi and the top-flight team is still young but we’re already starting to see FCV Farul Constanța emerge into a very important club in the southeastern European football landscape as a producer of talent and competitor in the region; this is exactly what Hagi envisions for his project.
Let’s progress into the tactical analysis portion of this article. To start off, we’ll take a look at The Sailors’ approach in possession of the ball under Hagi this season.
In the build-up, it’s common to see the centre-backs come short on either side of the goalkeeper, Marian Aioani. From there, it’s common to see short passes out to the centre-backs on either side, as we see in Figure 1 (a pass to the right centre-back on top and a pass to the left centre-back on the bottom), or long passes directly out to the full-backs who’ll have pushed a bit higher up the wing.
Aioani is right-footed and, therefore, passes to the right are a bit more common due to the way he naturally receives the ball and lines up his passes — it’s trickier to play the ball out to the left as the ‘keeper has to go across his body.
Aioani’s pass map for this season, shown in Figure 2, highlights the extent to which he plays these sideways passes. Hagi likes his team to move from goalkeeper to backline in the build-up, either going to the centre-backs next or the full-backs if they want to progress a little bit more quickly; they don’t generally play very directly from goal-kicks.
Just prior to figure 3, Aioani played the ball directly out to the left-back where we find him now, just inside his own half on the left wing. From here, the left-back headed the ball over to central midfield for his central teammates to battle for possession in a more desirable area.
After a small bit of a scramble, the ball is played back to 20-year-old Constantin Grameni, who settles himself on the ball quickly and finds a valuable forward pass into the striker’s feet, helping his team to progress into the opposition’s half.
This is a typical example of what may happen should Aioani go longer from the goal-kick and play the ball out to the high full-back — they’ll typically look to quickly get the ball into midfield and progress from the valuable central passing zones. Of course, the full-back could take the ball down and carry the ball forward themselves, as we saw in the top example in Figure 1, but this is more difficult when the ball is played long to them directly as it’s unlikely they’ll have the space ahead of them to attack unless Farul Constanța are in transition.
Grameni has definitely been a key player for The Sailors this season, especially in possession and creating threat for his side as Figure 5 would indicate — looking at the high percentile ranking for dangerous passes per 90, in particular, here — but he’s also been valuable off the ball, engaging in and winning plenty of his defensive duels and making a lot of interceptions.
The 20-year-old is an Academia Hagi product, as you might have guessed, and has primarily played at left central midfield for Constanța this term. He is left-footed and can provide a box-to-box option for his side; his creative and progressive passing have proven very valuable for his team.
In Figure 6, we can see Grameni’s progressive pass map for 2022/23. He’s helped his side to unlock the opposition’s defence on the left quite often while he’s also played some crossfield balls to help break down the opponent. At 20 years old, he’s already got 80 first-team appearances for FCV Farul Constanța under his belt. Grameni is one of the brightest talents in Romania’s top flight and is definitely one of the key reasons behind his side’s success this season.
When looking to get into the final third and once having entered the final third, centre-forward Denis Alibec’s off-the-ball movement becomes very important. We see an example of how Alibec is often seen moving to help his team progress into the final third and beyond in Figure 7.
Above, we can see Alibec having dropped off from the centre-backs into some space between the opposition’s central midfielders. This creates a dilemma for the opposition over who should be picking up the striker at this moment.
As the ball is played from the left wing into central midfield, the opposition midfielders close in a little bit. Meanwhile, Alibec drops off a tad into some space over his left shoulder. This subtle movement gives the central midfielder a great line-breaking forward passing option, which he takes.
From there, Alibec receives on the half-turn, and slides the ball through the backline in order to try and meet the left-winger’s penetrating run.
Alibec has been another key man for The Sailors this season as a key creator and goalscorer. He’s currently their top goalscorer in the league with 14 while he’s also provided eight league assists. A huge part of his role in the squad has been getting into the kind of positions we saw him occupying in Figure 7, creating options for his teammates and problems for the opposition in the process.
Figure 9 shows Alibec’s shot assists map for 2022/23 and here, we can observe that a lot of the 32-year-old attacker’s creative passes have come from around the same area we saw him occupying back in Figure 7.
FCV Farul Constanța haven’t crossed the ball much relative to other Superliga teams this season but they have played more through passes than any other Superliga team this term (8.16 per 90), another result of how they like to create their chances.
This season, Hagi’s side have been very efficient in front of goal, scoring 71 (the most in the Superliga) from an xG of 56.68 (third in the Superliga). Furthermore, Constanța’s xG per shot stands at 0.105 — eighth in the league.
Indeed, it’s common to see Constanța shooting on sight a little bit and, granted, that hasn’t necessarily hurt their title chances this term, so more power to them on that front, but perhaps one criticism of their attacking game is that they could be creating better quality chances and less wasteful ones.
Still, they’ve been impressive and effective in how they build from goal-kicks through midfield and into the penalty area, as discussed in this section of the analysis.
Out of possession
Meanwhile, out of possession, FCV Farul Constanța have been a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, they’ve conceded the joint-second-fewest goals in the league (38) — this is, of course, what matters most and they can be happy with this defensive record.
However, they’ve conceded the third-highest expected goals (53.4) in the Superliga with the joint-highest xGA per shot (0.119). So, it’s not like The Sailors’ defence has been impenetrable this term and that’s why they’ve got such a good defensive record, rather their opponents have failed to capitalise on their opportunities like Constanța have capitalised on theirs — but the opportunities have still been there.
Hagi has lined his side up in a variety of different shapes this season. We see an example of Constanța in the 4-3-1-2 above, while they’ve also lined up in the 4-3-3, 3-4-3 and 3-4-1-2 often this term. They’ll generally line up with a front three where Alibec will frequently drop off in possession, but his exact positioning will vary depending on the opposition’s shape in the defensive phase.
Here, he’s marking the opposition’s holding midfielder while the wide forwards cover the opposition’s wide centre-backs. With four men in midfield, the three central midfielders and Alibec, the opposition are forced wide. For Constanța, it’s the ball-near wide midfielder’s job to close the wide receiver down while the front three remain central with their men.
At the same time, the other two central midfielders shift over to this side slightly as well, providing support to the ball-near midfielder and ensuring massive gaps don’t open between him and the rest of the midfield.
Often, this pressure is enough to force the opposition long, where Farul Constanța’s backline remains intact to deal with the problem. With four defenders left at the back in this example, Constanța avoid being overloaded by the long ball forward and would hope to have enough tools to protect the goal and regain possession.
Mihai Popescu has been a valuable central defensive asset for Constanța in and out of possession this term, as we can see from his high percentile rankings in progressive passes per 90, dangerous passes per 90, positioning, aerial duels, aerial duels won and defensive duels.
When receiving from the ‘keeper on the left, Popescu is capable of driving his side forward in a similar fashion to Grameni, though he’s required to do so less due to Grameni’s superior technical quality in this regard. Still, we’ve seen some similar passes from Popescu this term both when looking to drive his side forward on the left and playing crossfield balls to the right.
Defensively, it’s common to see Constanța’s centre-backs coming out from the backline and engaging high when necessary to try and stop attacks before they progress to a more dangerous area.
When this works out, it’s great for Hagi’s side as they can spring a quick counterattack and hit the opposition hard when they’re not prepared in transition. However, as Popescu’s defensive duel success percentage ranking in Figure 12 shows, he’s not infallible when committing to duels and if beaten, this can leave the left side of Constanța’s defence quite exposed, allowing the opposition to progress into a good shooting position.
This is part of why Constanța’s xGA per shot is so high. They don’t concede a tonne of chances but when they do concede chances, the quality is far too good. So, reducing the quality of chances against must be a major goal for Hagi’s men.
For our final section of the analysis, we’ll discuss Constanța’s approach in transition, both from defence to attack and from attack to defence.
Beginning with defence to attack, again, it’s normal to see Constanța’s centre-forward dropping to be a passing option, either for a long ball as we see in Figure 15 or a short pass into feet similar to how we saw Constanța attacking in a normal possession phase back in figure 7, but in a slightly deeper position, of course, on the counterattack as the opposition’s defence is higher and the centre-forward must drop off more to be available for his teammates.
Similar to before, we see two runners — one on either side of the attacker — waiting to pounce on the ball in behind for them.
In this case, we just saw Constanța’s centre-forward get up for this aerial ball and flick it on for the right forward to chase in behind. This helps The Sailors progress into a dangerous position for chance creation and gain some serious territory while exploiting space in the opposition’s defence as they scramble to get bodies back behind the ball.
In all phases of play, the most significant element of Constanța’s attack is the link between the centre-backs / full-backs / central midfielders and the dropping centre-forward, as well as some link-up play between the front three who’ll always look to move in unison, with one dropping to receive (usually the centre-forward) and the other two looking to provide options for him. The fact Constanța’s forwards are so familiar with this now is a big part of why their attacks can be so fast and fluid, both in settled possession and in transition.
As for the transition to defence, again, Hagi likes to see Constanța committing bodies high and looking to win the ball early before it even progresses into a dangerous position. If successful, this creates great counterattacking opportunities. From this point of view, winning the ball high can be an incredible playmaker so it’s understandable why the 58-year-old coach likes to see his side defending in this manner.
However, high risk/high reward — if Constanța fail to win the ball high and allow the opposition to get past them, as was the case in Figure 17, it can leave the backline fairly exposed and this time, open to at least being in an even-numbers situation as you may have, for example, a front three already up front and a ball carrier now charging forward from deep. Again, we see this scenario play out in Figure 17.
To conclude this analysis, Hagi’s project is defined by youth, with the likes of Constantin Grameni being the embodiment of what it’s all about for the 58-year-old Romanian football legend.
On the pitch this season, Constanța have had some very clear tendencies in possession: their ‘keeper usually passes wide to either the centre-backs or full-backs; from there the ball may move into midfield from where it will go to the dropping centre-forward if it doesn’t just go to that centre-forward directly; once the ball is in the final third, we’ll see some link-up between the centre-forward and the wide forwards who’ll look to give him options on either side.
Out of possession, the wide midfielders will be responsible for pushing wide and challenging the opposition’s wide receiver should they get the ball in the build-up and the likes of the centre-backs have the license to press high, force the engagement and challenge to win the ball early as opposed to defending more patiently. We see aspects of this play in transition as well, as previously discussed.
While the underlying numbers aren’t so positive for Constanța this term, the project is clearly a promising one that could set Constanța up as one of Eastern Europe’s top teams in the near future should things continue progressing as they are.