We explore why, all of a sudden, the English Premier League seems to be embracing Italian coaches.
Ask any Italian football follower, and they will tell you that Italian coaches are collectively the best around in terms of tactics, game management and pro-activity. The education, training and development that many of them get at the Coverciano complex, just outside Florence, stands them in good stead both domestically and on the European front.
The influence of Coverciano should not be understated in the development of Italian coaches. The complex was built in the early 1950’s, and is where Italy’s most promising young coaches learn their trade. It is also where the Azzurri national teams in every age-group train before games. The Azzurri’s World Cup triumphs in 1982 and 2006 were masterminded at Coverciano, and prior to devising the final plans for their National Football Centre at Burton-upon-Trent the English FA went on a fact-finding mission to Coverciano.
Italian coaches have long had an excellent reputation, but their prowess only started to be recognised outside Serie A in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. The rise in reputation was mainly due to the increased television exposure of European club competitions that coincided with the success of Milan under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, and also the Juventus sides of Marcello Lippi.
In recent times, everyone talks of the success abroad of the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini and, granted, they have maintained the reputation of Italian coaches however, many forget that other Italian managers had also recently won trophies outside Serie A; Roberto Di Matteo being the most recent example at Chelsea, until of course the success of Leicester City last year.
What then, has suddenly made English Premier League clubs decide that Italian coaches are the ones to turn to, especially given the success of La Liga coaches such as Unai Emery and Diego Simeone in recent times? One must remember however, that even the likes of Simeone started his coaching education in Italy, during his playing career at Inter and Lazio, whilst the Argentine also managed Catania for half a season in 2011, saving the club from relegation when all seemed lost.
Is it last year’s success of Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City, or merely a realisation that teams with a solid foundation, coupled with tactically sound coaches who possess excellent in-game management skills, are ones that have the consistent performance levels for mere Premier League existence that many owners and chairmen crave?
The Premier League has created a cash monster that has seen numerous chairman change managers at the mere sniff of a run of bad results. The fear of relegation, and an inability to draw milk from the cash-rich cow, has seen some clubs change managers in a fashion that even the likes of Maurizio Zamparini and Massimo Cellino might raise an eyebrow at.
Premier League owners and chairmen are fast becoming more aware that pro-active managers with sound tactical in-game management skills and awareness are crucial to survival. Failure to employ candidates with such skills is likely to see such club’s changing managers in desperation after six months. At the same time, managers who are able to provide such consistency on limited budgets are worth their weight in English pounds, billions of them to be precise.
There is little doubt that Ranieri’s success at Leicester was a crucial part in the attraction of employing Italian managers again. For a team that was often poor in defence the previous season, Ranieri tightened up Leicester considerably, imposing a base and solidity for which Italian managers are famed, whilst also losing none of their counter-attacking instinct and threat that came from the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
On top of Ranieri’s miracle with Leicester, the success of Francesco Guidolin at Swansea City when replacing Garry Monk in January, further increased the profile of Italian managers within the Premier League. Various names were linked with the Swansea role, including Brendan Rogers and Ryan Giggs, before the Swansea chairman, Huw Jenkins, announced that Guidolin was to take charge.
Guidolin’s appointment drew puzzled looks from many, not least the Swansea players. Their captain, Ashley Williams, admitted that he and some of the players had been forced to conduct an internet search to identify the style of play and training methods of their new manager.
However, those who were followers of Serie A were aware of Guidolin as the man who led Udinese to successive top four finishes in Serie A, with a team consisting of the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Samir Handanovic, Juan Cuadrado, Gokhan Inler and Antonio Di Natale.
It was clear from the comments of Huw Jenkins at the time Guidolin’s appointment, that the Italian’s ability to achieve success with a team within a constrained budget, both at Vicenza in the early days of his coaching career and latterly at Udinese, was one of the reasons for his appointment.
It has been a consistent pattern of Guidolin’s teams that they have constantly developed players, thus enabling them to be sold on for significant sums and profits. At the same time, Guidolin has the knowledge, confidence and ability to identify the players who should be brought in and can adapt to his style of play, thus enabling the team to maintain the performance levels of previous seasons.
At Swansea, Guidolin has shown, once again, that he is tactically astute, passionate and an excellent motivator. Meanwhile, one his strongest attributes, his flexibility and tactical awareness, has been obvious to Swansea fans by his in-game management and reacting to situations by subtle formation changes.
Guidolin’s success in steering Swansea safely away from the relegation places last year after taking over highlighted these attributes, and perhaps led other Premier League chairmen to look at Serie A to identify candidates with similar attributes to the Swansea manager.
Similarly to Guidolin, the name of Walter Mazzarri brought blank glances from many Premier League fans following his appointment as Watford manager. That despite the former Inter manager having been linked with Liverpool before they appointed Jurgen Klopp.
Mazzarri managed several lower league clubs, including Pistoiese and Livorno, before moving to Reggina in 2004. Before his arrival, the club were perennial yoyo merchants, yet Mazzarri saved the club from Serie A relegation for three consecutive seasons, with the latter of those survivals coming despite Reggina being deducted 11 points.
His performance at Reggina did not go unnoticed, and Sampdoria came calling at the end of the 2007 season. The following season, he led the Genoa-based side into Europe and to the final of the Coppa Italia in 2009, before he moved on to Napoli where he spent four successful years, including victory in the Coppa Italia in 2011/12, a match which saw the Partenopei ruin Alessandro Del Piero’s final game for Juve.
Mazzarri’s reputation goes before him in Italy, and the Watford players will soon feel his wrath if they step out of line. He is regarded similarly to Capello and Mancini, in that he is a disciplinarian, and expects strict adherence to his methods. However, that should not gloss over the fact that his teams are always well prepared, both physically and tactically, and that more than most is the reason why Watford have employed the Tuscan.
The most well-known of the recent Italian managerial appointments, is Antonio Conte, following his success with Juventus and performances with the Azzurri at Euro 2016. Such performances and results drive approach made him one of the obvious choices to take the poisoned chalice of the Chelsea job. Despite the season only being three games in, his impact has already been obvious, and the Chelsea players seem to be revelling in his close-knit intense management style. One should realise however, that Conte is, like many of his fellow countrymen, a pragmatist who deals in results and not style.
His Juventus team were all conquering in Serie A, but many regard them as one of the most boring teams ever to have won the Scudetto. Each game was astonishingly similar and not many performances live long in the memory. Football is, however, a results business, and Conte is an expert in delivering those.
The Chelsea players will already be accustomed to dealing with such a demanding manager, having worked for Jose Mourinho in the previous two seasons however, one should realise that Conte’s expectations of his squad and players will be greater than even those demanded by Mourinho. Conte’s demeanour on the touchline is simply characteristic of his intensity and desire to succeed, and whilst it will no doubt appeal to the Chelsea fans, any players with a more relaxed attitude or mindset quickly find themselves having to also display such intensity if they wish to retain their places.
Until recently however, the reputation of Italian coaches in the English Premier League was viewed with a little suspicion, and in some cases disdain. One only has to look at the reaction to Ranieri’s appointment in the summer of July 2015. Following the announcement of his appointment, it did not take long for Ranieri’s past as a “failed” Chelsea manager to be wheeled out, meanwhile use of “the tinkerman” phrase became fashionable again.
Much of the suspicion of the suitability of Italian managers to the English game goes back to the inability of the England squad to adapt to the expectations placed on them by Fabio Capello, particularly in terms of diet and off-pitch restrictions on their behaviour. This meant that there was a reluctance on the part of many clubs to employ Italian coaches. On top of that, despite Mancini’s success at Manchester City, his dictatorial approach and quest for perfection, did not sit comfortably with several of his players and ultimately led to the end of his time in Manchester.
Similarly to Capello, Mancini was occasionally seen as an autocratic individual and unwilling to accept questioning or criticism of his thoughts or beliefs. At the same time, and like many Italian managers, the thought of losing was unbearable to Mancini, and Chelsea fans and players will find that Conte is of a similar mindset. This came across clearly in Mancini’s interview with Daniel Taylor of The Guardian newspaper when he was Manchester City manager in February 2013, “I’ve always been the same. I’ve had the same mentality ever since I was playing with my friends at school. I want to win. I only want to win. I don’t like to participate at anything and not finish first”.
Mancini’s attitude might perhaps be something of an anathema to many in the English game. Translating that intense mentality may ultimately have been possible over a short period, but it takes a certain type of individual to embrace it 24/7, 365 days a year over a 15 year playing career. It might also explain why perhaps the likes of Roy Keane and Glenn Hoddle have had indifferent success over their managerial careers in England.
There was perhaps a fear that Italian managers were too harsh, with intense analytical tendencies, and somewhat overbearing in their controlling nature of every aspect of a player’s life. Some would argue that this is precisely what is necessary to succeed at top-level football. One only has to look at the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Josep Guardiola to see this. That in itself can be traced back to the differences in approach of managers and players, and indeed the roots that lie behind the Italian approach to football. One only has to look at the approach of the respective countries at international tournaments as an obvious example.
The Italian mentality is that the players are at the tournament solely for footballing reasons – you eat, drink, dream and read about football. When you’re not doing that, you’re in immersed in lengthy tactical meetings analysing and watching videos of your opponents, thus ensuring that you are fully prepared.
Capello tried to instil that mindset and approach in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, and it backfired miserably. The English players were simply neither able to cope with being cooped up 24/7 or the intensity of everything they did being observed and controlled for them. For Italian players, that is the norm. That only Jamie Carragher took up Capello’s invitation to watch virtually every game with him during the squad’s “downtime” speaks volumes for the differing mentality and approach that the respective nationalities have.
Going forward, the introduction of more Italian coaches into the Premier League should see a more tactical based approach, with many teams becoming more flexible and adapting to in-game changes to formations and tactics. At the same time, the likes of Conte, Mazzarri and Guidolin have all been appointed for their preparation, organisation and discipline – the latter being something that is becoming ever more difficult in today’s era of player and agent power.
However, it won’t just be the Italian managers who solely drive such tactical adaptations, the likes of Mourinho, Guardiola and Klopp will think nothing of making changes to their initial plan, irrespective of the match-time. That can only be a good thing for the Premier League, but also the England national team as they desperately try to make some impact on the international front.
What can however be safely said is that the embracing of Italian managers is clearly an attempt by many owners to introduce a more organised, tactically aware and disciplined approach within their clubs, whilst also possessing managers who have experience and success at overcoming the likely challenges that their respective clubs will face.